There is a saying in Telugu that by the time a truth crosses the doorstep, a lie travels the whole village. That is how fast a rumour, lie and false information spreads in the digital era.
The penetration of fake news or misinformation into our lives is proportionate to the penetration of technology and digital culture, including smart phones. And that explains how WhatsApp is among the most used platforms to spread fake news, intentionally and unintentionally.
Fake news has multiple effects. On one side, it may lead to social unrest and while on the other, it may create a fear psychosis. The circulation of fake news in Telangana is gradually on the rise, be it on child lifters on prowl, which led to the lynching of innocents or the recent example of missing person cases in Hyderabad which triggered a fear psychosis.
How and why is fake news spread
There are two types of fake news, the intentional type churned out by fake news factories, especially by political parties to further their propaganda, and then the unintentional type, created and spread by people unwarily.
“We are on an information superhighway, with people who are not trained to drive on that highway, but are travelling at a very high speed,” says Dileep Konatham, Director, Telangana Digital Media, pointing at the low digital literacy levels in rural areas.
“Though people were given voice because of social media, some are speaking for attention and not with intention,” says Anil Rachamalla, the founder of End Now Foundation, which advocates digital safety.
Not just illiterates or semi-literates, even people with good digital literacy levels are falling prey to fake news which constitutes misinformation.
“Fake news is also news which is shown out of context, technically we can’t call it as fake news but it is misinformation, and they are difficult to control,” points out Konatham. Politicians and political parties are the biggest targets for such kind of fake news which are taken out of context and circulated.
Rachamalla classifies fake news into seven common forms, starting with satire or parody, misleading content, imposter content and fabricated content and going on to false connection, false context, and manipulated content, some with an intention to cause harm and some to deceive.
Tackling this menace
Konatham says that multiple stakeholders like the police, media, organizations working on digital safety should work together to curb fake news.
“Last year, after the child lifters rumour incident, we conducted a round table on fake news involving multiple stakeholders and that led to some sensitization,” says Konatham, adding that there is an urgent need to raise awareness through digital literacy programmes and that the Government of Telangana was planning such sessions.
Another pressing issue in the proliferation of the fake news is people with verified social media handles peddling the lies for varied reasons. For this Konatham says: “Platforms should be more responsible and if verified handles spread fake news, they should remove the verified status. That is the least they can do.”
Though some handles were either suspended or their verified status taken down after complaints, Konatham feels social media platforms should come up with more proactive measures.
Identifying and controlling fake news, what experts say:
- Don’t consider WhatsApp as your primary source of information
- Cross-check the information with credible media outlets
- Leave the habit of forwarding without checking
- When something looks sensational, cross check
- Most fakes have provocative words like ‘Share it till it reaches the Chief Minister’
- If the message is urging you to forward, don’t
- Final and only mantra: When in doubt, check it out