Real world of fake news: A look at the spread of misinformation and what it means for the media

Fake news - the phrase of the times we live in. So much so that it is the one dominant phrase even in the limited vocabulary of a sitting US president. September 12, 2018 18:22:49 IST
Real world of fake news: A look at the spread of misinformation and what it means for the media

Fake news - the phrase of the times we live in. So much so that it is the one dominant phrase even in the limited vocabulary of a sitting American president. At a recent rally in Montana, Donald Trump said even Honest Abe (Abraham Lincoln) was a victim of fake news.

What is truth? Why do we believe in the things we do? Whom do we believe and why? When faced with questions like these, it is prudent to ask ourselves another question - What would Foucault say?

Michel Foucault is one of the most cited and influential thinkers and philosophers of the 20th century, and his work seems particularly relevant now.

Unlike some major names in philosophy who believed in all-embracing theories to explain the world, Foucault believed that life and the world around us were far too complex and nuanced, and argued that language and the structures that underpin it help shape the way we see things.

Real world of fake news A look at the spread of misinformation and what it means for the media

Representational image. Reuters

Words matter - they frame the debate and how we understand the world. He once said, “Not everything is bad, but everything is dangerous. The choice we have to make every day is to determine which the main danger is.” That is the question we are going to address today. When it comes to news and fake news, when do we know which is which and how do we know which is a greater danger.

“Fake” once meant “counterfeit” or “inauthentic,” like a fake Hussain or a fake birth certificate or a fake driver’s license. These days, it is used to essentially denounce another person’s reality. But “fake news” as a phenomenon is not new. The first newspaper published in North America got shut down in 1690 after printing fabricated information. But the challenges we face in the now, in 2018, are unique and uniquely different, thanks to the rise of technology and with it, the rise of the modes in which information (and misinformation) is generated.

A massive new study conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and published in the journal Science analysed every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence — some 1,26,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years — and found that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominated the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.

The spread of false news stories is sowing distrust, empowering the fringes, discrediting the fourth estate, and poisoning democracies across the world. And that is what we dig deep into today.

Vladimir Nabokov once said reality is the only word that means nothing without quotation marks. He was, of course, making a sardonic point about relative perceptions. But politicians have taken the philosophical point about the lack of an “objective truth” and run with it to the polling booths, in the process, creating alternate facts, creating discord hardly seen before.

Richard Nixon may have labelled media members as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” but it would take Donald Trump to tag the media with a name straight out of Stalin’s playbook - “enemy of the people.”

In a recent development, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, after meeting WhatsApp head Chris Daniels, said the Facebook-owned messaging app has contributed significantly to India's digital story but it needs to find solutions to deal with "sinister developments" like mob lynching and revenge porn.

Even before we dive deep into what the above news could lead to and discuss the events leading up to it, let us just  explore  a little bit, this phenomenon that we know today as fake news and which sometimes causes, "sinister developments.”

Writer Jonathan Swift quipped as far back as in 1710, "Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”

Well, in 2018, we know exactly what he meant. But let us go back a bit to 2014 when a viral quote was attributed to Meryl Streep on the internet and later, it was learnt that the quote summing up a personal disenchantment with inauthentic experiences, was actually first published by motivational figure José Micard Teixeira on his social media account.

There was no particular reason to misattribute the quote except that Streep was better known than Jose and a confessional statement from her mouth was likely to travel faster and so it did. Much before the advent of the internet, tabloids across the world misattributed and even sometimes cooked up quotes and even entire incidents to sell copies.

The internet, in any case, is not designed like a gated community where information, trivial or important, can be first verified and then allowed in. That is its greatest asset and its greatest flaw.

Hence, unverified reports of Princess Diana's last words and Jennifer Aniston's secret meetings with ex-husband Brad Pitt and other assorted odds and ends have been floating around for ages because they carry within, the potential of being true even if they are not and have a raging curiosity value. But fake news has consequences.

The United States election, anyone? Brexit, anyone? Lynchings here in India, anyone? Even countries where the media are heavily regulated have suffered in the age of fake news. Take China, for example. In 2008, rumours about maggots found in Sichuan-grown tangerines hurt sales nationwide in China.

In 2011, following an earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Japan, as the Wall Street Journal reported, unverified messages circulated on the social media platform QQ about the magic power of salt in protecting against radiation and a possible salt shortage, pushing large crowds to grab the mineral from markets. Some rumors even touched high-level politics. As The Atlantic reported, in the aftermath of the 2013 trial of Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member, rumors of a pro-Bo coup being in the works spread quickly.

Since eyeballs and shares drive virtual traffic, a lot of stuff is created for clickbaits and usually tailored to tap into the bubbles right at the top of the mass culture cauldron. As academician Simeon Yates said, the economics of social media favour gossip, novelty, speed and “shareability.” And as has been documented by novelist Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, the one thing that has helped humans stick together is – gossip.

Hard news is or should be a different cup of tea. As a media study class will tell us, news at its purest is about the where, how, when, who and why of current events unfolding in all the directions that we know as north, east, west and south.

How this news is delivered may or may not have an obvious or latent political slant. A recent article in Scroll went viral as it featured the memorable faces of Doordarshan News who delivered information with a deadpan expression, absolute absence of emotion and the only irrelevantly interesting bit in the broadcast was if Salma Sultan would ever repeat her sarees. And if the rose tucked behind her ear was real or fake.

News is information about current events. This may be provided through many different media: word of mouth, printing, postal systems, broadcasting, electronic communication, and also on the testimony of observers and witnesses to events. It is also used as a platform to manufacture opinion for the population. The last line about manufacturing opinion is at the heart of the rise of fake news in recent times.

The Telegraph UK noted that "fake news" was not a term many people used two years ago, but it is now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy and free debate. "As well as being a favourite term of Donald Trump, it was also named 2017's word of the year, raising tensions between nations, and may lead to regulation of social media," said The Telegraph.

And as you know, regulatory measures have already begun to unfold globally and in India particularly in the aftermath of numerous episodes of lynching triggered by WhatsApp forwards.

The dispersion of fake news

News or something dressed up as news is delivered to us today via not just mainstream media outlets across various platforms but also through websites with no known experience in serious reporting, via viral memes and doctored videos and images that blur the line between the real and the manufactured and at times create paranoia, fear, polarisation and conflict.

A recent report by IndiaSpend, that calls itself the country's first data journalism initiative based on, among other things, the content analysis of news reports, said that in the first six months of 2017, 20 cow-vigilantism related attacks were reported – this was more than 75 percent of the 2016 figure, which was the worst year for such violence since 2010. IndiaSpend said, "The attacks include mob lynching, attacks by vigilantes, murder and attempt to murder, harassment, assault and gang-rape.”

A July report in The Hindu, however, attributes the spate of mob violence from April this year to rumour mongering on social media around child abduction.

The report said, "Rumours spread like wildfire on instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp about children being kidnapped from neighbouring villages and killed for organ harvesting, leading to mob violence in many parts of the country. The origin of the rumour was believed to be a video circulated on Whatsapp purportedly showing motorcycle clad men abducting a child playing in an avenue. This has led to over 20 murders and a spate of mob violence in several parts of the country including the southern states, Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, Assam and Tripura."

Why was the video circulated though? It wasn't reported as news in any major media platform, so who picked it up and from where and why? The video in question was in fact created as a public service video and filmed on the streets of Karachi by a Pakistani NGO to warm people of the dangers of child abductions.

Since Whatsapp was the medium via which this video was circulated along with other provocative messages, it became the hub of the controversy surrounding the role that messaging platforms can play in the spread of fake news.

But really, what exactly is fake news?

Fake news. Isn't the word itself a kind of an anomaly? How can news be fake? And if it is fake, how can it be called news?

The Telegraph article has opined that governments and powerful individuals have used information as a weapon for millennia, to boost their support and quash dissidence and traces its origin back to the Roman times when statesman and military leader Octavian famously used a campaign of disinformation to aid his victory over Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republic.

We can also go back to the Nazi propaganda machinery that infamously swayed mass opinion against the Jews leading to catastrophic consequences and genocide.

Post the 11 September attacks on the twin towers in the US, a perception was created that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that resulted in not just a war with Iraq but to the end of the Saddam Hussain regime. No weapons were ever found.

"In the 20th century, new forms of mass communication allowed propaganda's scale and persuasive power to grow, particularly during wartime and in fascist regimes. This sort of propaganda was largely funded and controlled by governments, but the blatant bias it carried waned as the ideological struggles became less apparent. Added to that, as populations became more used to mass communication, they could more easily see through it,” The Telegraph reported.

Ironically though, it is the mass communication conduits that have now become purveyors of both propagandist agendas as well as fake news.

And we are not talking about inevitable political slants in news reporting but a complete and total misrepresentation of facts as when the US-based InfoWars, a self-styled conspiratorial channel now banned on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, claimed that people in school shootings are crisis actors. He even sold testosterone boosting supplements on his site, that he said were needed to fight globalist powers!

Post the rise of Donald Trump to the highest office in America, terms like fake news have acquired a new meaning. One that derides all fact-based data and reporting if it is uncomplimentary and a "deep state" conspiracy is also being endorsed by Republican and conservative media pundits to suggest that influential decision-making bodies believed to be within the government are working to destabilise Trump.

An article in describes fake news as stories or hoaxes created to deliberately misinform or deceive readers. It says, "Usually, these stories are created to either influence people’s views, push a political agenda or cause confusion and can often be a profitable business for online publishers. Fake news stories can deceive people by looking like trusted websites or using similar names and web addresses to reputable news organisations."

According to media literacy expert Martina Chapman, there are three elements to fake news; ‘Mistrust, misinformation and manipulation’. says, "Traditionally we got our news from trusted sources, journalists and media outlets that are required to follow strict codes of practice. However, the internet has enabled a whole new way to publish, share and consume information and news with very little regulation or editorial standards. Many people now get news from social media sites and networks and often it can be difficult to tell whether stories are credible or not. Information overload and a general lack of understanding about how the internet works by people have also contributed to an increase in the fake news or hoax stories. Social media sites can play a big part in increasing the reach of these type of stories."

A recent article in Time though points at how tech companies have long maintained the position that they are platforms that facilitate the sharing of content, not publishers who are responsible for the billions of posts, videos and documents uploaded by users each day.

And that brings us back to the central theme of this podcast. The role that platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp can play both in the propagation and curtailment of fake news. Will it be profitable for them to monitor their traffic in order to control fake news? And if platforms like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube weed out certain polarising, rumour dispensing voices, will they be accused of suppressing free speech? It is a double-edged sword.

This accusation has already been levelled by Trump who is particularly upset that InfoWars is no longer available on media sharing platforms. On 18 January, 2018, Trump announced the winners of what he called were the "Fake News Awards", intensifying his unending attacks on a number of major US media outlets like CNN and New York Times that have contrarian views.  His administration also coined the term "alternative facts" which speaks for itself.

How is fake news created?

According to, fake news is created with the raw material of clickbaits, stories that are deliberately fabricated to gain more website visitors and increase advertising revenue for websites.

The Telegraph piece distinguishes a commercially-driven sensational content from state-sponsored misinformation, "The goal here isn't revenue, but influence. Outlets in Russia or elsewhere might produce content to swing public opinion, sow division or give the illusion of support for a particular candidate or idea, either domestically or abroad. Fabricated stories can often be mixed with true or sensationalised ones. Highly-partisan news sites can conflate fact and opinion, are nakedly supportive of one political viewpoint or party, and often position themselves as alternatives to the mainstream media."

The Telegraph piece adds to the mix, swarms of Twitter bots posting doctored or misleading photos, adverts on Facebook, fake videos on YouTube and more. And propaganda that deliberately misleads audiences, to promote a biased point of view or particular political cause or agenda.

The 2016 US election has been a case study of the dispersion of fake news on Facebook about political rivals as well as the entrenched partisanship that compels people to share stories tailored to their beliefs and prejudices.

The Telegraph UK piece cites headlines such as "Pope backs Trump", "Hillary sold weapons to ISIS", "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead" as examples of how in the run-up to the election, sensational posts like these garnered thousands of shares.

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, says that over 30 governments have been identified in recent times as “opinion shapers" to promote propaganda online.

Social media does its bit to feed personal biases as our news feed is dominated by articles based on our personalised searches. Media personality Hugh Linehan noted some time back, “Media is no longer passively consumed – it’s created, shared, liked, commented on, attacked and defended in all sorts of different ways by hundreds of millions of people. And the algorithms used by the most powerful tech companies – Google and Facebook in particular – are brilliantly designed to personalise and tailor these services to each user’s profile.”

WhatsApp's easy sharing and mass messaging format further narrows down our interaction with opposing views and voices and isolates us in what calls as a “filter bubble” where we only respond to and share stuff that reflects our own likes, views and beliefs.

The Webwise piece also discusses the obvious role that sloppy journalism plays in this scenario when media houses may publish a story with unreliable information or without checking all of the facts which can mislead audiences.

Mirror Now has recently started a new campaign of debunking fake news circulating in the social media and it is a healthy sign that not just Facebook and WhatsApp but mainstream journalism is looking at ways misinformation can be sifted from real news. Not too long ago, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation focused on media literacy, and it can be a beginning for other newsrooms across not just Australia but globally as to how they can help the consumer to check just exactly what she or he is consuming.

How do we manage fake news?

Globally, Google and Facebook have introduced reporting and flagging tools and there are many fact-checking sites. On the other end of the spectrum, says webwise, is the critical importance of digital media literacy on the part of the consumer and the need to inculcate skills that can help people to critically evaluate information while navigating the internet.

Checking the source of the story and if it is being widely reported elsewhere is a good start.

The Telegraph says, "It takes a fraction of the effort to spread a falsehood than it does to fact-check and issue a correction. Few industries are as sensitive to changes in technology as journalism, and the advent of social media has wrought havoc on reporting and, by extension, the truth. We've moved beyond the digital age and into the information age; the former was defined by access, but the latter is about excess. If we treat fake news like a virus and assume it spreads and replicates in the same way, then the best approach might be inoculation. When enough people are vaccinated against a disease to prevent it from spreading."

This could mean, says the piece, that instead of trying constantly to break news, news organisations could do faster, real-time fact-checking, publish post-mortem articles about a news event, noting how disinformation was triggered and shared. They could hold public figures to account for their role in spreading unverified and unfounded falsehoods and train journalists to identify bad information and issue corrections, early and often.

And most importantly, do everything to give the audience the tools to critically analyse news as it unfolds.

As The Guardian editor Katherine Viner puts "The role of a news organisation is to exist as the line of demarcation between an informed public and a misguided mob."

The accountability of social networks

This week, Time Magazine reported on the grilling by Capitol Hill lawmakers of social networks like Facebook and Twitter in an ongoing process to question the two about their accountability and this is the third such interaction that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has hosted.

"Google, which has dealt with foreign meddling in phishing attacks and on video platform YouTube, was also invited to send a top executive to appear before the Senate. Though Congress has long been loath to craft legislation that reins in Big Tech, as problems have dogged the powerful industry, talk of regulation has become more widespread in Washington. The Senate forum follows one with security and technology experts in early August, where witnesses raised the alarm about an ongoing “high-stakes information war” and said that the government and private industry need to step up their collective game in order to protect national security,” says Time Magazine.

This process, says Time Magazine, will be an opportunity for top brass from Facebook and Twitter to show a willingness to work with lawmakers on solutions, in ways that may make legislation seem less necessary or give the industry greater influence in shaping eventual rules.

According to Time Magazine, "Senate aides say that the integrity of the upcoming U.S. midterms is just one item on the agenda. Foreign actors in countries such as Iran have been using media to sow discord in ways that ripple beyond election cycles, trying to manipulate sentiment around Palestinian politics, for example."

The measures being discussed closer home

In a previous podcast, we have already discussed with you how the Indian government has asked WhatsApp to adopt measures to deal with potentially harmful fake news and has now also asked that the messaging giant set up a corporate entity in India, appoint a grievance officer and find a technical solution to tracing the origin of fake messages on its platform.

IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad's meeting WhatsApp Head Chris Daniels may lead to far-reaching changes in the way the platform operates in India. He also indicated that WhatsApp could face abetment charges if no action is taken.

WhatsApp has already started a radio campaign to address the fake news menace during which 30-second radio messages will air as ads on various channels where users will be urged to be cognizant of the messages they receive and be mindful before forwarding. The tagline being, of "mil kar mitaayein afwaahon ka bazar" (let's together eradicate the rumours in the market).

In another statement, the messaging platform said, "WhatsApp stands committed in its efforts to address these issues jointly with civil society, stakeholders and the government."

WhatsApp kicked off the first phase of its radio campaign on 29 August in seven states including Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

A Moneycontrol report informs that the second phase of the campaign started on 5 September with radio ads across 83 radio stations of AIR across the states of Assam, Tripura, West Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

These campaigns will run in eight regional languages, ie, Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, Telugu, Oriya and Tamil and will go on for a 15-day duration.

WhatsApp states that the campaign has been designed in an easy-to-understand format to help users spot misinformation. The idea is to further sensitise them about the challenges of fake news and addressing these collectively as a society.

The company has, however, not accepted the government's demand for traceability of messages, saying that creating such a software will go against the idea of user privacy and end-to-end encryption.

For WhatsApp, India is its biggest market with more than 200 million users and one where people forward more messages, photographs and videos than any other country. In July, WhatsApp said, however, that message forwards will be limited to five chats at a time, whether among individuals or groups and said it will remove the quick forward button placed next to media messages.

A Moneycontrol report says that with general elections slated to be held next year in India, the government is taking a tough stance on the use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp for the spread of misinformation.

Moneycontrol has also previously reported that the Election Commission is planning to crack down on fake news circulated on social media to influence voters. It is planning on treating Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms as potential carriers of fake news that can influence polls. It may also bring these platforms under the ambit of paid news.

"At present, the country has no specific law against 'paid news'. However, the EC is now planning to make it applicable by resorting to invoking Section 10A, read with Section 77 of the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) dealing with misreporting of funds, to treat publication of 'reports' as political advertising. If the practice works out, every promoted tweet, post and video by political parties on any social media platform would be treated as paid news," said the report.

Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) OP Rawat told Mint, "There are several allegations in the world against social media platforms and they are subject to many probes. We are taking all steps to contain this so that our elections do not get influenced by it."

An expert committee of EC has also held a meeting with officials of major social media platforms, Rawat said, where a commitment was sought that any such material that can adversely affect elections will not be put upon their platforms.

What is disturbing though is the government's call to telecom operators to find ways to block Facebook, WhatsApp in case of misuse. This may be the classic case of throwing the baby with the bathwater because social networking sites are also tools of authentic information, communication, social initiatives and a lot more, and blocking these platforms when many mainstream news channels and outlets are pushing slanted views, can be a bit short-sighted.

In what seems like a clarification, India's department of telecommunication said the letter was aimed at finding ways to block such apps during "emergency situations".

"There is a need for a reasonably good solution to protect national security," said the official, who declined to be named in the report by Mint.

India has also begun probing Cambridge Analytica's misuse of Facebook user data, which it suspects included information on users and it remains to be seen if the Indian consumers of information feel more confident about the security of their own data or if they are reduced to just pawns in the cat and mouse games between lawmakers and content purveyors. And just who wins the war on fake news and how.

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