Feature

Free-for-all

When sharing news is as easy as pressing “repost” or “forward”, setting the facts straight becomes much harder.

One for the likes

On social media, the falsehoods that go viral tend to have clickbait headlines. These sensational fake news stories elicit strong emotional reactions by appearing to expose a moral outrage or relate a heart-warming incident.

Even without basis in fact, such posts are readily shared by users because of the positive social reinforcement users get, in the form of extra “likes” or higher engagement.

Though spread without the intent to deceive, misinformation takes on the veneer of truth when shared by a trusted contact.

An experiment by the Media Insight Project found that readers were more likely to deem an article factually accurate and recommend it if it was shared by a trusted person. It showed that people paid more attention to who shared the news than who wrote it.

An infodemic year

In times of uncertainty, unverified claims spread faster and further as users clamour to keep abreast of the latest news. In 2020, an “infodemic” was unleashed alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coined by the World Health Organization, the term refers to an information overload and the proliferation of fake news during a global health emergency.

Some hoaxes may be innocuous or simply bizarre. During the 2020 lockdowns, feel-good stories provided welcome distractions. One viral post claimed that elephants in China had gotten drunk on corn wine, though the photos were later revealed to be taken out of context.

Such fake news is relatively harmless, but others push unfounded medical advice or raise false alarms. The result can be widespread fear and confusion, making it difficult to filter out credible sources amid a chaotic information landscape.

Unregulated

Social media companies have sought to address the problem by attaching warning labels and setting up information centres on content related to political elections or COVID-19.

Critics charge that these measures are of limited efficacy as they depend on the individual actively clicking on links and verifying the information. Since all content is marked, whether legitimate or fake, responsibility is shifted onto users.

Moreover, even if public posts are tracked, fake news continues to run rampant in private messaging apps.

With two billion global users, WhatsApp is the primary mode of communication in numerous countries. However, its end-to-end encryption means it cannot flag falsehoods, and without effective gatekeeping, it has become a major conduit of fake news.

In countries like Indonesia, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, myths about drinking water every 15 seconds or eating garlic to prevent COVID-19 made the rounds on WhatsApp. Anxious families sent these messages to each other, turning remedies without scientific backing into miracle cures.

Turning rumours into reality

Users are more susceptible to fake news when their media diets exclude diverse viewpoints. Since algorithms recommend content based on past preferences, existing points of view seem to be supported by online information.

In an already polarised climate, incendiary stories with no grounding in fact can entrench divisions and lend credence to wild conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims of a stolen election stoked the violent mob that attacked the US Capitol in 2021. Refusing to accept the election outcome, protestors laid siege to a symbol of democracy, leaving 140 injured and five dead.

Spread irresponsibly, fake news can erode a society’s consensus on the facts, shape worldviews and even incite people to violence, in order to defend their version of the truth.

Learn how truth is being undermined by cutting-edge deepfakes in “How Fake is Your Reel?

Sources: American Press Institute, AP News, BBC, Fullfact, The Guardian, McDonald's, Mother Jones, National Geographic (1, 2), NewsMeter, New York Magazine, Politifact, The Journal