Technology, particularly the internet, has revolutionised the publishing industry. More people rely on their Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp for news bites, not only because they are recommended by peers but also because they are presented with a catchy headline that suggests sensational content will follow. This is exacerbated by the fact that mainstream media is considered a biased and unreliable source of news. In the ensuing torrent of news that includes a fair share of fake news, it is easy for the reader to lose the ability to discriminate and exercise good judgement.
Content on the internet reflects a diverse population
The internet is now consumed and fed by people across ethnicities, biases, ideologies and perspectives. It has now begun to reflect the melange of varied mental capabilities, inclinations and bents of mind. As an ideological champion of free speech, the internet has given a voice and a platform for anyone who wants to be heard. It seems to be saying that though protests are welcome, they need to be peacefully demonstrated.
To what extent has fake news spread ill will and rancour?
But far from the ideologically inspired internet, the ground realities suggest a different picture. For instance, it has been found out that Whatsapp served as a breeding ground to incite violence against Mohammad Akhlaq with a false allegation that he has slaughtered a cow. In less dramatic and more common instances, we see how social media and messaging are actively being used by propagandists who use strong and provocative language to sway the readers minds one way or the other. It is easy for an undiscriminating audience to be easily polarised as they lack the reasoning, judgement and most importantly the time to verify the authenticity of such propaganda. And by being instant and conversational, Whatsapp isn’t making it any easier.
Tech against tech to take down fake news
John Snow, a popular news anchor remarked, “Facebook has a moral duty to prioritise veracity over virality. It is fundamental to our democracy.”
So, internet publishers have their task cut out to walk a tightrope by supporting free speech on one hand and handling the growing menace of fake news. And guess what is going to aid them in weeding out fake news? More technology. For its part, Facebook has taken down thousands of fake news sources from its network, used machine learning to identify news hoaxes and changed its financial incentive structure to work against those who create and spread fake news.
Google, which is virtually the internet for most people, also has a responsibility to push fake news stories down its ranks or do away with them altogether. So, they are investing in editors to manually evaluate the quality of search results. Using crowdfunding, Wikipedia has started an online publication site called Wikitribune which promotes evidence based journalism. Here, it puts volunteer contributions together with journalists and aims to spring to the top as an authentic source of news.
Hoaxes could even take down businesses
It turns out that hoaxes are not limited to the political and social space. They have begun to taint business brands as well. At the moment, it is more prevalent in the developed world where factcheckers like Snopes are coming to the rescue. In a recent case in Indian context, a person from Hyderabad was arrested for falsely claiming that a certain eatery was serving dog meat. What could be the motivation? Just attention seeking. Thankfully, we have startups like check4spam.com which investigate news content that people find spurious and misleading.
What lay ahead for fake news: Will free speech be curbed?
It is unlikely in a democracy like India. Most of the fake news is grounded in attention seeking or advertising. If the popular news publishers take active steps to nip fake news in the bud using cutting edge technology, half the problem is solved. In the long run, readers are also likely to become more cautious about what they believe to be true, especially when it involves content that is sensational. As of now, free speech is safe.