Before the dawn of social media, people fell for gossip that was passed around in whispers. With every ear the “news” travelled to, the level of tadka applied to it exponentially increased. Now with social media, there is one extra playground for everyone to play on. Fake news– rumours’ older sibling, is far more lethal, given its capacity for global reach.
The most recent exhibit of it came just yesterday when a senior journalist tweeted, “Breaking: Former president Pranab Mukherjee has passed away.. farewell Pranab da.. RIP,” in the midst of news circulating about Mukherjee’s deteriorating health. He deleted the tweet soon after and apologised for “falling for fake news… it was unprofessional of me to not reconfirm it before tweeting.”
Then earlier this month “news” about a certain Dr Aisha succumbing to COVID-19 began doing rounds on Twitter, Facebook, and then WhatsApp. The account under her name also had a selfie claiming to be her with the tweet, “Going to be hooked to the ventilator sometime today, remember me, my smile to you… Will miss Ull.” The young doctor was hailed as a “COVID warrior” for giving up her life on the line of duty. But the climax of the story was not what people were making it out to be. Journalists and fact-checkers busted the viral “news,” deeming it to be fake. Right after, the account claiming to be Dr Aisha was deleted.
Now that these fake news items have been debunked, it’s time we go back to them and ponder – why exactly did everyone fall for them? Whose fault was it?
Falling for fake news is easier than you think
General social media users aside, even professionals like a certain “former president of the Resident Doctors’ Association in AIIMS” (according to his Twitter bio), and yet another senior journalist, bade Dr Aisha farewell. The realisation that people who we look up to with reverence for the utmost standards of credibility and truth are also consuming, and intentionally or unintentionally spreading fake news, is disturbing.
When our news anchors and figures of authority are the ones publishing unverified claims, then does the television-watching public have any other option but to believe what they tell us?
Why do we fall for fake news?
Most fake news forwards, differentiated as either disinformation (deliberate) or misinformation (accidental), seek to fulfil certain propaganda or promote an ideology with at intent to influence people. And we believe in them so readily because they either pull at our emotions or our inherent biases. Or simply because they go viral.
For instance, recently historian Rana Safvi faced backlash on Twitter for allegedly “claiming” that “Mughals invented rakhi.” And since she’s an outspoken Muslim woman, she was trolled for her communal views. Only, it was later verified that she never made such a claim.
Why was it so easy to attribute fake news to her and attack her? Because she’s from a minority community or because she’s a woman? Why did people not do the sensible thing and check the news by asking her about it upfront? Why is it always that people find it easier to outrage over something without first checking whether there’s any iota of truth to it? Are we so blinded by hate that we’ve pushed logic to take a back seat?
How to verify news on your own
Contrary to popular belief, fake news is not just the domain of uncles and aunties on family WhatsApp groups. Even the younger crowds are susceptible to it because Instagram is to us what WhatsApp is to them. For instance, Dr Aisha’s story was all over people’s Insta stories as well with “RIP” messages. Since fake news is a pandemic that preys on everyone, what’s the solution to curb it?
On an individual level, we’re all capable of fact-checking news for ourselves. Verified websites dedicated to fact-checking often have helpline numbers or email addresses we can reach out to for getting a certain news item or picture checked for truth. Another handy tool is Google’s Reverse Image Search, wherein one can upload a dubious photo/video and the search results will show the original sources of that entry. Online, social media handles that sound like bots or don’t have profile pictures should also be flagged for caution.
It may seem like an impossible task to entirely end the circulation of fake news, but we need to begin somewhere. And the best place to begin is with ourselves.
Views expressed are the author’s own.