‘Fake News’ has been prevalent in our society perhaps since humans first learnt how to form a functioning society. Everyone gossips about something, whether it is celebrities, neighbors, court cases, or high school drama. Gossiping, as a social behavior, is not a bad thing, in fact, research finds that it is actually a good thing! But, as the saying goes, too much of anything is bad, so how do you know when gossiping or fake news has gone too far? When the Gossip takes malicious turns, wen people get hurt, when their reputations get severely damaged
The introduction of social media has taken gossiping and fake news to a new level, while also accelerating and intensifying its aftereffects. The recent fake news forwards on Whatsapp and the resulting lynchings and deaths stand proof of how low fake news can take humanity if not stop or, at the very least, regulated.
Why does fake news circulate so quickly and easily on Whatsapp?
Unlike most social networks, Whatsapp is a personal network; it’s like messaging on a more social level and the groups you are a part of are almost always made up of people you know. So the conversations you have in those groups are much like the conversations you will have at a family get together or when hanging out with friends.
Now in this, if someone suddenly introduces a serious, news topic, discussion is bound to ensue. And since it’s coming from someone you know, you don’t even stop to think whether the news is real or it’s been forwarded by someone from another group. To make things worse, we forward these messages to other groups with the intention of informing or warning our loved ones, without realizing that we’re adding to the vicious cycle of fake news.
On most Social Media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, you know who the original poster is; the name comes with every share. In Whatsapp however, this feature is absent, in fact, up until early 2018, you couldn’t even tell if a message was a forward. This means that people can blatantly spread fake news without fear of repercussion as they know it cannot be traced back to them.
Why does fake news turn to violence mostly in India?
Whatsapp confirmed in their blog that in India “people forward more messages, photos, and videos than any other country in the world” so, for many Indians (especially in the rural areas), their first point of contact with the internet is through Whatsapp.
Pratik Sinha, the founder of Altnews.in told the BBC: “Suddenly people from rural areas in particular are inundated with information and are unable to distinguish what is real from what is not. They tend to believe whatever is sent to them.“
According to Durga Raghunath, an Indian digital expert, another reason why fake news is so rampant in rural India is because “The mental approach is different. Many of the issues people see on these platforms have an emotional connect, and because the information comes to us via family and friends, the inclination to double check is very low.“
Add political extremists into the mix, and you have a cruel, hate-driven, vicious cycle that takes advantage of villagers that are quick to treat anything they get via social media as gospel and are spurred on by the strong, confident language of the message.
How do you keep fake news in check?
In April of 2018, Malaysia passed the Anti-Fake News bill that would punish offenders with a 500,000 ringgit (approx. ₹ 8,484,000) fine and/or a possible a prison sentence of up to six years. Although this bill was met with heavy criticism for various reasons like possible obstruction of free speech and vague definition of “fake news”, it is a step closer to hindering the spread of fake news through social media.
Whatsapp has recently introduced features that they hope will help deal with fake news. Now, if a message is a forward, you will see a ‘forwarded’ tag with the message along with the number of forwards you can send at once limited to 5. The admins of groups also have more control over the activities of the group. The messaging app has also taken to newspapers (an information medium used widely in rural India — where violence related to fake news is more likely to take place) to educate people through full page ads about the steps they can take to curb the spread of fake news and it’s resulting violence.
While the macro-level solutions might take longer to carry out, there is one thing you can and should do on an individual level to help fight fake news: Fact Check. No matter how urgent the news seems to be or how relevant it is to you or your loved ones, always fact check every piece of news or information before forwarding it or talking about it. Here’s an excerpt from a Time of India article that’ll explain why fact checking is so important:
“The WhatsApp forward was dramatic, with images of cash-filled boxes and an underground tunnel, all allegedly discovered by a raid on politician V K Sasikala. When Sadhna C’s father received it, he called her for a fact-check. The Hyderabad-based IT professional found that “they were pictures from two completely unrelated news stories. The hoax had already been debunked online by then. I forwarded a clarification to my father, who then sent it back on the group. There was no response,” the 25-year -old told TOI.”
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It is not only important to fact check before forwarding such messages, but it is also your duty to inform the people you got the message from if you find the news to be fake so they can inform the people they heard from and hopefully reverse the cycle that one text message started.
Following the horrific fake news propagated deaths, many fact checking companies have come up. The main purpose of these companies it to fact check any viral news going about the internet, especially through social media.
In the end, it is not enough to blame the Government or the police system or the app or even the news itself for the deaths of innocent; it is in the hands of each individual to react to things like this: will you ignore it, believe it and decide to try your hand at vigilantism? Or will you do something about it?
Now you may think “what can one person do?” to that I ask “what can one person not do?” was it not one person who formulated the fake news and set off the cycle? Was it not one person  who made a simple phone call that lead to the death of two completely innocent people? Does this not show the power one person has?
So instead of misusing this power or worse, not using it at all, wield this power for good and help people who are already in this fight against fake news.
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