Campaigns against fake news tackle its supply, but more vital work perhaps lies in addressing the demand for it

If moral sense is innate in humans, just as a sense of language is, then it follows that fake news is appealing to the moral sensibilities of many in a way that more factual reporting is not. Without understanding and tackling this, we are unlikely to succeed in tackling the global information crisis.

Samrat June 26, 2020 17:14:14 IST
Campaigns against fake news tackle its supply, but more vital work perhaps lies in addressing the demand for it

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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A few days after the tragic death of 20 Indian soldiers in brutal hand to hand combat on the China border in the cold desert of Ladakh, a video landed in my college WhatsApp group. It showed what appeared to be the beginnings of a clash between groups of Indian and Chinese soldiers. An Indian army officer could be seen in the video talking to the Chinese soldiers, one of whom, presumably the commanding officer, was angrily shouting at them to leave. “Last video of Col Santhosh Babu trying to pacify Chinese soldiers. Even while he was talking, Chinese soldiers bullied him. After this first phase of fist fight began,” the text accompanying the video announced.

It looked real, and yet, these days, it is impossible to tell by sight alone what is real. An expert might have spotted clues in the video to tell whether it was in fact authentic or not, but for the layman, it would be difficult to judge. There were Indian and Chinese soldiers, the place looked like Ladakh, and there was an altercation building towards a physical clash. I had my doubts, simply because the vast majority of videos on serious matters on WhatsApp turn out to be fake, but I nonetheless shared it with the kind of people who might be able to judge if a video is fake — a small group of journalists, and a friend from a security service. One of the journalists shortly replied that the video was in fact fake. It had been debunked by Boomlive.in, who found that it was released by a Telegu news channel, ABN Andhra Jyoti, and that it was made from two old videos of Indian and Chinese soldiers clashing that had been spliced together. The friend from the security service wrote back to say that the terrain was wrong and the epaulettes on his uniform showed that the solider arguing with the Chinese was not a colonel.

Without the inputs from my friends, I would have been left guessing about whether that video was real or fake.

The battle to determine what is real and what is fake is a struggle that people around the world are going through every day in their lives. Those of us whose daily job it is to filter fact from fiction, such as journalists, develop some defences over time to the unending flood of falsehoods, but even we occasionally fall prey to the fakes. What happens to normal folks, the average consumers of information — the public?

Campaigns against fake news tackle its supply but more vital work perhaps lies in addressing the demand for it

Some answers can be found in the report of the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Truth, Trust and Technology Commission. This commission published a report which argued that the information crisis is manifested in what it called “five giant evils”. According to a PowerPoint slide on this report titled “Tackling the Information Crisis” shared by Professor Charlie Beckett, director of the Commission, the first manifestation of the information crisis is confusion. Citizens are less sure about what is true, and who to believe. The second manifestation, according to the report, is cynicism. Citizens are losing trust even in trustworthy sources. The third is fragmentation. Citizens have access to potentially infinite knowledge, but the pool of agreed facts on which to base societal choices is diminishing. Citizens are becoming more divided into ‘truth publics’ with parallel realities and narratives. The fourth manifestation is irresponsibility. “Power over meanings is held by organisations that lack a developed ethical code and exist outside of clear lines of accountability and transparency,” Professor Beckett’s slide says. The fifth and last manifestation he mentions is apathy, which leads eventually to loss of faith in democracy.

We can see all of these manifestations in India. If we do not do something about it, the country may soon find itself in even greater crisis than it is at present.

What can and should be done is a very difficult question. Political propaganda machineries closely tied to government are themselves dishing out lies all the time. TV channels aligned with political parties in power are themselves responsible for much of the propaganda out there. To leave them in charge of regulation would be akin to leaving the wolves in charge of the chicken coop. Nor are the social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, doing a good job of sifting out fake from real, or hate speech from criticism. In any case there is no way to check the ‘fake news’ and hate speech on WhatsApp, and that’s where most of it circulates.

A start to disincentivising some of the fakery might begin with campaigns calling on advertisers to stop advertising on platforms that promote hate speech. On Monday, outdoor clothing company Patagonia pulled its ads from Facebook and Instagram in response to the “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign in the US. It followed other companies such as The North Face which had taken similar steps. Since a lot of the hate speech both on TV and online are actually in pursuit of TRPs and hits on websites which lead to increased revenues, a reduction of ad revenues is a serious disincentive for channels and websites that have so far profited from hate.

While such campaigns definitely have a role in addressing the supply side of the fake news and hate speech problems, the more vital work perhaps lies in addressing the demand side. The problem right now is not so much that quality journalism is not available. On the contrary, a lot of it is available at the click of a button, for free. The problem is that people in droves are actually seeking out the falsehoods and hate speech. Somehow, those channels and websites dishing out hate and lies manage to appeal to them in a way that sober and truthful reporting does not. Emotion and partisanship trump reason and facts for millions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. What are we to do about that?

If moral sense is innate in humans, just as a sense of language is, then it follows that fake news is appealing to the moral sensibilities of many in a way that the more factual reporting is not. Without understanding and tackling this, we are unlikely to succeed in tackling the global information crisis.

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