“Pls forward. Don’t ignore…”

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By 2017-11-19

By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features

We live in a time where anything said with a little confidence is believed to be the truth. It is a time where news updates come from Facebook, and the need for fact-checking has become almost obsolete. Gone are the days of reading the newspaper at breakfast while sipping your morning coffee, or turning on the TV to catch the primetime news before bed. Now all you need is a smart phone and an internet connection, and lo and behold, you've got access to as much information as your heart desires. It's like a utopia of sorts for the curious mind.

According to a TRCSL Internet Usage statistics report, Sri Lankans subscribed to 1.5 million new cellular connections in 2016, thereby increasing the country's Internet connectivity by 30% and bringing our total internet users to 6.1 million. The statistics also show a steady increase in this connectivity from 2005, which is a huge step up for Sri Lanka in terms of web access.

However, herein lies the problem. The Internet is a mass of unfiltered data, being consumed at several megabytes per minute with no monitoring whatsoever. Thus, anyone can read anything and believe it to be true. If you are someone from the millennial generation, the chances of this are sadly higher. Being the generation that virtually lives on the internet, we consume and share more information on the Internet than we do in our real lives. With such a large community of people who get most of their information online, the manufacture and spread of fake news has become easy, and often goes unnoticed.

In conversation with Ceylon Today, Science Writer and Independent Researcher on New Media Nalaka Gunawardene says, "Fake News is not an entirely new phenomenon. It has been around, in one form or another, for decades! Many of us in the global South (developing countries) have grown up amidst intentionally fake news stories in our media, some of it coming from governments, no less". Hence, this phenomenon has existed for decades. More recently however, the developments in new media and technology have exacerbated the problem. Gunawardene, who is a Fellow of the Global Internet Governance Academy in Germany says, "The spread of Internet and digital technologies have made it easier to spread or share Fake News; much faster than it was possible before. With half the world's population now using the Internet, correct information as well as disinformation spreads worldwide at unprecedented speeds. The social media platforms like Facebook – that enable easy sharing of any content – have inadvertently become multipliers of Fake News!"

It's true, viral videos are no longer of cats jumping on to photocopiers; they are now well-produced news stories, designed to capture an audience just waiting to take the bait. While some of them have been blown out of proportion to increase their allure or twisted to sound interesting, others are downright fake, just stories concocted to attract views- and these social media sites are only helping them gain their viral status.

Another form of fake news that is extremely popular in Sri Lanka is the passing of fear-inducing stories through text messages. While this concept originated when the most instant form of messaging was e-mail, it has now migrated to various messaging apps. As Gunawardene expresses, "Email has been used for over a generation, and today's younger people tend to prefer instant messaging services or chat applications like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber. With email, the service providers like Gmail actually have some automatic filters helping flag spam and fraud emails. While such filters are not perfect, they help separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. However, there is no such scrutiny in the chat apps, so info and disinfo......can flow through – leaving it only to the discernment of recipients. And as we know, common sense is not very common and people tend to pass on the most outlandish and implausible information without critical thinking!"

This sort of fear-mongering is not to be taken lightly. Some common chain messages include the HIV spreading scam where a forward claiming that people with HIV were maliciously hiding needles doused in their blood in the seats at movie theatres in order to spread the virus. While this chain message started years ago, it is still in circulation and often goes viral, causing mass panic. Of course, it is baseless but as George R. R. Martin says "Fear cuts deeper than swords" and thus the goal of fear-mongering is achieved. This type of message forwards have become commonplace, with more and more people falling for these scare tactics every day.

Further, with new avenues of revenue like Google Adsense, and other forms of viewer-based earning, news has gone from being about reporting the facts as they are, to a competition to see who can come up with the most click baiting title. Diverting traffic towards your website or page has never been more important, and more and more people and companies are resorting to the use of exaggerated titles and concocted news stories to do this. According to Gunawardene, "Click-baiting means writing the most sensational and outrageous headlines for web stories that have little or nothing to do with the actual stories themselves. This is because most people move around the web these days through search engines' help (mostly Google). When search results are displayed, usually ten a page, the user glances at them and decides which one to click and read through. In that split-second decision making, many users tend to go for headlines that appeal to their curiosity, hidden desires or even fears.

This applies to articles and videos alike. Most Youtube videos these days have no relation to their title whatsoever. In the event that they do, it is something that takes up a small, irrelevant fraction of the video but is used to make the video sound enticing enough to be clicked on. The same goes for articles on most free news or information websites. The more astonishing or shocking the titles sounds, the more viewers are tricked into clicking on it. Gunawardene goes on to explain, "So, for example, a perfectly natural phenomenon like a meteorite coming down in the south of Sri Lanka with a loud noise and a bright light in the sky is speculated as a North Korean missile attack. And much, much worse liberties are taken with the truth – and many, if not all media ethics are breached in the process. And not just in the headlines, but in the stories themselves. Privacy is grossly violated. Violence is glorified. Public fears about shortages or political reforms are magnified and taken out of proportion

The worst is when these two aspects are combined. Fake stories with click baiting titles go viral almost every day. Whether they are shared on Facebook, Twitter or even smaller, lesser-known websites, once viewed by a few gullible, well-meaning souls, they are plastered everywhere. It is a vicious cycle, as the more attention they are given, the more popularity they get. Thus, even if someone shares it in an attempt to discredit it, the chances of it going viral remain. Gunawardene adds, "In Sri Lanka, some gossip websites and the online extensions of private broadcast companies are engaged in a bitter competition to outdo each other with the largest number of web visitors/clicks. In this scramble, the frontrunners have scant respect for privacy, decency or true information", which is true. These websites often exploit people and organizations, blowing things out of proportion to get their desired popularity.

The result of this wide-spread fake news phenomenon is what is most troublesome. According to Gunawardene it is a key symptom of public mistrust in journalism and the media that has been developing for years. Fake news has filled this vacuum of credibility, thus making it worse. "Some call this a 'Journalism Deficit', or a gulf between what journalism ought to be, and what it really is." He says. "So the medium to long term response to Fake News is to narrow and bridge this deficit by nurturing quality journalism and critical consumption of media."
As Kalev Leetaru, a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, argues, "In a society where citizens wholeheartedly trust and embrace mainstream journalism, these outlets can act as a bulwark against viral falsehoods. On the other hand, as trust in the media declines, citizens increasingly turn to a much wider collection of news sources -- not all of which may perform as extensive vetting of their reporting." This highlights the importance of maintaining the quality of legitimate media. Gunawardene says, "In searching for solutions to the Fake News crisis, we must recognize it is a nuanced, complex and variable phenomenon. There cannot be one global solution or quick fix. Indeed, any 'medicine' prescribed for the malady of Fake News should not be worse than the ailment itself! We must proceed with caution, safeguarding the principles of Freedom of Expression and applying its reasonable limitations."

While prevention is better than a cure in most cases, the spread of fake news is now well beyond the stage where it can be prevented. What is needed is a good, long term solution to bring the focus of news back to where it should be: legitimate, real and straightforward. This cannot be done through censorships as most governments try to do as this then prevents critical thinking and the freedom of speech, a cornerstone of democracy. However, to quote Gunawardene, "Fake News is an instance where we in the media development and media freedom communities need to be most vigilant and advocate for the right responses to what is a huge challenge facing information society."

This view was backed by a Joint Declaration issued on 3 March 2017 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, and some others, which stressed the importance of streamlining the laws and regulations governing freedom of speech and the media, promoting media literacy and increasing media pluralism. Censorship is never the answer, awareness is.

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