The fake news epidemic

We should stop fake news from pervading not just the depths of our social networks but our souls

In the last two decades, technology has undergone a radical shift. The way we receive, consume and share information has also changed. I remember when I was growing up in the 90s there was only a single state-run TV channel through which we used to get our news. That was our primary source of peeking into the news of the world.

It was both authentic and reliable; or at least for the most part. The state, through its TV and radio, and a few private publishing companies, through their newspapers, had a monopoly (or more like an oligopoly) over the information and news sharing.

But, with technology, information has become democratised. Millions of people are now connected online through their mobile phones and social media platforms. Everyone is now the consumer and producer of news, voicing their opinions on every big or small issue. But their authenticityremains a big question mark.

At a single glass on social media, you will find many contrasting yet authentic-looking news stories. Each story justifying their point of view. With their own set of facts, figures, and arguments. It’s like these individuals are living in parallel social and political universes. Having their own set of ‘alternative’ facts. In every political or social world, the authenticity and reliability of the facts and figures are established on its ability to strengthens their claims. If any fact is in contradiction to the belief system of a particular ‘world’, it is not acceptable. They consider rigidity and blind faith to be a virtue.

It seems like there is a relentless pursuit to win arguments. And unfortunately, regardless of how factual the arguments are, nobody is ready to accept anything on the contrary. We have closed our hearts and minds to the possibility that we might be wrong. We are not even ready to entertain this idea that what we argue for, what we believe in, what we like, might be incorrect.

Common sense dictates that discussions and arguments about our issues and problems would help us find solutions. But unfortunately, it is leading to more rifts and disagreements, with the online space becoming more toxic.

Oscar Wilde said, “give a man a mask and he will be his true self”. Although there was no social media then, he very well understood the human psyche. His words certainly hold true for people on social media. Where they wear a mask of anonymity and say whatever they wish to. An opportunity they can certainly never be afforded in real life.

Fake news, misinformation, disinformation, lies, false news, and alternative facts mean ‘lies’. These have the power to manipulate and hijack public opinion and force governments to do what it wants: either sway elections in a party’s favor or start a war between two countries; create panic and fear in people or bully and troll everyone.

And although fake news has been around for as long as humans have, in technology it has found an amplifier like never before. This is partly because relatively older mediums of information sharing had some level of regulations. But on social media, anyone can say anything they wish to. Or say things in a way that tricks the algorithms of social media platforms to work in their own favor – get more likes and views. This is partly because we are not adequately trained to use these platforms.

There are two broad issues here that we are dealing with. The first one is the unintentional spread of fake news due to a lack of knowledge on part of the people who share it. This is a relatively easier problem that we can solve by educating social media users. The second issue is much more complicated and is a tougher nut to crack. It is the intentional creation and sharing of fake news. This also includes spinning simple news and only selective sharing of news that confirm our biases.

This means the problem is not social media but us.

Instead of sharing and endorsing fake news for our personal or political gains, each one of us should collectively fight against it. The keyboard warriors who trend certain topics and hashtags on Twitter, or the infamous ‘forwarded as received text messages’ on Whatsapp, are but some of the examples of how these mills churn out fake news.

In Pakistan, democracy is just getting a foothold. We must address issues that put it in danger because democracy is the name of dialogue and debate, of disagreement and settling arguments through hard, undeniable, facts. This is why we need to find a way to circumvent the creation and spread of fake news on our social media platforms.

A recent The Atlantic essay used the following proverb: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it,”, by Jonathan Swift who said it more than three hundred years ago, to summarise this research study that concluded that lies spread much faster than truths. Before it is too late for the truth to arrive, we should take action. We should restrict fake news from pervading not just the depths of our social networks but our souls.

Until we learn a way to rise above the thick fog of our biases, it’s going to become uglier with more and more fake news dominating truths our spaces. Till then “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there is a picture with a quote next to it”.

The writer is a co-founder and Innovation Lead at Peshawar 2.0, and a faculty member at Edwardes College, Peshawar, where he teaches Human Resource Management, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship

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