Fake news is often generated by outlets that masquerade as actual media sites but promulgate false or misleading accounts designed to mislead the public. When these activities move from sporadic and haphazard to organized and systematic, they become disinformation campaigns with potential to disrupt campaigns and governance in entire country. Such information can distort election campaigns, shape human emotions, affect public perceptions and manipulate them to affect perception of reality to unpredictable results. Situations that enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to enter public discourse, and can be embedded to create scapegoats or harden us versus them mentality to even justify violence.
“The most salient danger associated with “fake news” is the fact that it devalues and delegitimizes voices of expertise, authoritative institutions, and the concept of objective data—all of which undermines society’s ability to engage in rational discourse based upon shared facts.”
The economics of online journalism is brutal. Historically, newspapers hired professionals who investigated, fact-checked and had their work reviewed by professionals before having published. There’s no advantage of following this process in online journalism, because it takes too much time. By the time it is published following this process, a lot of information or misinformation is already out in public and opinions or trends already formed.
It does not looks easy to curb fake news by technology alone. Researchers have found that scores of AI bots are actively propagating misinformation or fake news on social media websites. A technology company cannot fight them out by simply deploying another AI bot. Both bots – those which spread and those who catch the spreader use similar technology, and are apparently equally capable. Also, AI requires training over lot of data over a period of time and human assistance to reach near perfection. Thus expecting AI bots to fight AI bots largely remain a zero sum game with likely chances for either party to win or lose. Then there is economic incentive. Fake news evoke emotions and often amass lot of attention from people, which also is attractive for platforms and content creators to make money.
During COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of misinformation was making rounds among citizens in many countries such as India, Brazil, Spain etc. These countries also happen to be one where institutional resources are weak. However in Nordic countries such as Denmark, Netherlands – where citizens prefer objective news and where media literacy is high, fake news propensity is low.
It looks like that a multi-pronged approach needs to be adopted to curb fake news. All actors need to play a role here; some of which is identified as under:
- Avoid crackdowns or censoring content: Media is fourth pillar of democracy. Limiting freedom and censoring content may only weaken the abilities of media houses to cover the news.
- Encourage independent, professional journalism: Coming up with too much restrictions can likely discourage true and healthy reporting. People need to make sense of complexity and challenges that are around us. Such analysis is not easily available in prints or not made available.
- Mobile is a key informational resource for citizens, and misinformation mostly happens through this channel. Government must develop an effective mobile internet policy that can provide right information to citizens and prevent misinformation.
- It is important to have an active and increased government presence on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook etc., as this could help in providing credible local content about pandemic and information on related government actions in real time.
News Industry actions
- Focus on high quality journalism: There has been a drop in people’s perception of trust in media agencies. Many consider that media houses are funded or supported by agencies with agenda. Such perception is bad for media agencies’ reputation and its viability in the long run.
- Call out fake news and disinformation: The news agency association or industry bodies can collectively promote and encourage organizations that help in validating the fake news. Some electronic media channels have started running shows that evaluate the authenticity of news or posts for their audience. Factcheck.org is another such example.
- An accreditation system may help that ranks media agencies on basis of professionalism, following best practices, having quality editors etc.
Technology company responsibilities
- Social media companies can invest in fake news detection. In this direction, building algorithm and enriching metadata along with databases may be carried out to build automatic hoax detection system.
- Crowdsourcing tagging to identify fake news. Posts or information can be enabled to be tagged for disputed or likely-false information.
- The business model of electronic media organization including social media is traffic driven. More traffic means more opportunities for earnings from adverts. Media organizations must devise ways to discourage organizations from promulgating fake news by making it harder to make money from fake news.
- Strengthen online accountability: People have full right to know what is the true source of a certain information, and who is the person running that source of information. Fake information is often promulgated from anonymous accounts as in this case it is difficult to hold people accountable.
- There is strong case for having media literacy program to prevent citizens from falling prey to fake news and misinformation. People should be educated to follow authentic news so that heightened degree of counter surveillance measures can be prioritized.
- People need to be educated to not believe everything at face value. One needs to build wider perspective on subjects that they follow. Simply limiting to few voices with similar agenda can narrow and sway one’s understanding on the subject.
In online world where viewership and subscriber base are critical metrics for making money, the headlines of news or posts are made provocative and sensationalized. News consumers should guard themselves and not believe everything that is written. It is equally important to judge whether what is written is verifiable and can be trusted.