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Combating Fake News On Social Media

Combating Fake News On Social Media

Matahari Timoer, member, Internet watchdog ICT Watch, said: “Our digital life has entered a dark age; that is why we need people to do their part as a lantern to light up, and fight this dark period.”

Timoer’s prophecy has come true much earlier and is manifested in unimaginable proportion, especially in India where one third of population has internet access on their mobile phones.

Exactly a year ago, an eight-year-old girl was found dead in Jammu’s Rasanna village. She had gone missing while taking care of her nomad family’s horses in a nearby jungle. A week later, her body was found with signs of sexual assault, torture and a cold-blooded murder.  This tragedy shocked people, but soon it was hijacked by internet warriors of opposing political ideologies. The grisly details of child’s death got blurred in a web of falsehood and distortions through social media platforms, spreading like a wild fire.

The dead girl was a Muslim and she lived in a predominantly Hindu majority area. Apparently the tragedy was pregnant with possibilities of creating a religious divide in a State where anti-India elements are not only embedded in the system, but they are funded and supported by outside powers. Not to miss in this situation, the saffron elements too have a great hold in the public space.

Almost on daily basis, the troll armies from two sides were spreading concocted messages, fabricated falsehood and imaginary facts to obfuscate public perceptions of a gory crime. One side was projecting the murder as a ‘Hindutva’ conspiracy to drive Muslims out of Jammu, while the other side used it to alert ‘Hindus’ about the dangers of ‘pandering’ to Muslims.

The memes, graphics and texts on Whattsapp and Facebook site were flying back and forth and at the end Jammu, the city that had remained an oasis of peace and harmony while Kashmir burned in insurgency and a deep communal divide, got divided. Its people were taken in by the propaganda on both the sides and for some time common people were confused on whom should they support – the victim or her alleged killers and tormentors.

The dark and ugly side of the internet was playing on the minds of peace-loving citizens of Jammu. In fact the long nurtured peace and amity of Jammu came under huge strain. Later, material evidence presented in the ongoing daily trial in the case at Pathankot, confirmed our worst fears: both sides were peddling lies to create a great divide in Jammu.

In one go, a leading language newspaper had splashed a report based on fake post that the girl was never raped. The newspaper has gone scot free even after peddling such a great lie.

Like Rasana, most of the fake news in India spreads through internet and is aimed at pitting one community against another and spread hate. In many cases, the troll army employed by either a political party or its fringe targets you for developing hate for the others – religious, social groups, a public figure or likeness for a leader. They paint one community as bad, while another as perpetually good, morally and culturally superior and great.

However, besides the political trolls, the common man is liable to fall for beautiful messages related to health, well-being or various products. For example, a particular video would ask you to shun medicines in favour of a particular herb. This looks innocuous, but the people behind it would bombard you with the same messages till you start believing in it. The algorithms of internet tracks your choice of surfing, the interest you show in going through a post (did you finish reading it or gave up midway etc.).

Based on your interests mapped by the internet, you will very soon end up searching products that would pop up in your social media platform. The seller company has managed to map your interest, influence your mind and woo you as a customer without you realizing the trap that you have fallen into.

Social media has come to dominate our lives and, therefore, it’s imperative for all of us to understand how it can alter our minds. We have conventionally believed in existence of truth and non-truth. Now the internet has thrown up another phenomenon called the ‘post-truth.’

Post truth means a phenomenon in which a debate is created by vested interests mainly by appealing to the emotions, away from realities or facts. The same assertion is repeated and counter arguments, facts or rebuttals are simply ignored. Many such debates remain in the digital space giving an impression of being ‘the truth.’

One such example is a post that declared congress leader Sonia Gandhi as figuring in the top 10 richest women of the world. A highly credited website used this list and after realizing it was based on fake news, withdrew Gandhi’s name from it. However, the original fake post remains on the internet and parties that want to create an impression that Congress is a Party of corrupt leaders has started re-plugging it.

We can get influenced by this and end up being manipulated in making a choice while voting in the election.

What should we, the common people, do to stay out of this? Here are a few tips:

        Internet is like any other scientific invention with a slip side to it. It should be used for man’s betterment but we must be careful not to get used by its various applications.

        Human interactions can never be replaced by digital world socializing; the likes and emoticons are no substitute for real emotions and feelings generated through real human interaction. So, we must stay in the real and not in the digital world.

        We must be responsible in spreading messages on social media platforms. Any message that seeks to pit one community or people against another should never be forwarded. In fact, spreading rumours through internet is already a crime and we must not use the forward click without applying our minds.

        Thumb rule: no harm in forwarding messages of love and unity; a simple no-no to anything that tends to get divisive.

        Should we like a suspicious message, it’s mandatory for us to check its authenticity from the existing online resources. We should check the sources of the story from its URL and separately verify its veracity.

        We must not believe our eyes as photoshop is a tool that’s being misused by unethical people to portray wrong images, generate negative emotions or even glorify some people in order to influence you. For example, the picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a young man seen sweeping the floor, is a morphed one. Its sole purpose is to glorify his achievements.

        Check websites like AltNews for factual position on certain news that seem to be fishy.

        We must report abusive and seemingly fake posts to the concerned social media platforms. After all, unless we protest, the manipulators would not face a challenge.

(Published on 21st January 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 04)