Online misinformation erodes foundational elements of society | Sunday Observer

Online misinformation erodes foundational elements of society

27 June, 2021

Wikipedia describes fake news as false or misleading information presented as news, often intending to damage the reputation of a person or entity. There is nothing new about fake news: it has existed for centuries in the world. However, universal access to online has changed the severity of the effect and the technology has enabled the spread of fake news to an unprecedented scale.

The rapid transformation of traditional media into online portals has become the new trend with a variety of social media creating, consuming, and spreading news in society. On the one hand, online social media platforms have tremendously improved the delivery of information to the masses, but on the other, this has become a breeding ground for misinformation and disinformation that can severely damage society.

Fake news

The negative consequences of fake news can be abundant, varied, and can end up emotional as well as physical harm to personalities, communities, societies, and countries. Fake news tremendously reduces public trust in news media as often people cannot distinguish false news from the actual news or information.

Social media has produced a dramatic impact during the past several years with the availability of a huge number of smartphones in Sri Lanka. With the increasing popularity of a variety of internet-enabled devices, the number of users who are getting engaged with social media increase continuously. Fabricated stories and personal opinions can gain exposure with exceptional speed, giving unlimited access to users in real-time conversation on any topic.

Fake news can be made out of misinformation that usually is used to shape or change public opinion. In Sri Lankan politics, using misinformation to willfully damage the opposing political parties or rivals has always been a common phenomenon. False contents including hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and fabricated reports fall into misinformation that not only damages the credibility of the target but also produces long-term negative impact.

In contrast, disinformation is more harmful, usually fabricated, false, and harmful news deliberately spread to influence public opinion. The country has witnessed disinformation throughout history that most often is politically motivated. Disinformation by way of fake news through online portals can create confusion and chaos in a country.

Although social media is enormously useful to society, fake news, disinformation, and misinformation spread are concerned dark side. False information in whatever form is a burgeoning issue that can influence users and manipulate them for personal, political, or economic reasons.

Since its inception, fake news thrived on social media. Whilst the information on users such as demographics and general internet behaviour is useful, people with ill-intentions can leverage misinformation easily and rapidly. Using the information about users, fake news can be created to address a core audience to follow through. Furthermore, such false information can gain exposure much faster than any other form of communication.

Separating truth and lies

How can someone recognise fake news on social media? Clearly, the task is not easy. However, there are certain simple methods available to identify misinformation to an extent. Fake news always has a clear bias. Attempting to inspire anger or other strong mental reactions from the reader prevails in fake news. Usually, the content is authorless and the news source is completely unfamiliar. Also, the content most often is suspicious. If someone is careful to analyse these criteria, false news may be detected to an extent.

However, the irony is that most people do not even attempt to verify any of the above before sharing such news with others. Most often, the receivers keep posting the news or sharing instantly on impulse rather than on rational thinking. Particularly, readers of fake news have a tendency to spread misinformation on political issues based on individual political bias. For example, even when they are suspicious about the information source, they still tend to pass it on to others if the news is about an opposing politician or a political party.

Two separate incidents can be cited out of many in the world and Sri Lanka based on false fabrication and complete deception that went viral. The first was the news that a South African mother claim that she has given birth to ten babies which later became a hoax. The news went viral and the entire world initially believed the story until the authorities declared that the incident was untrue and the news was fabricated. Later, the mother herself admitted that she has allowed her partner to create the fake story for monetary purposes.

Opposition with no evidence

The second incident is from Sri Lanka where an old video clip of a certain television channel presenting lock down-related news that came on social media, a few days ago. Initially, almost all social media users in Sri Lanka accepted that this news was true. However, several hours later it became clear that the news was obsolete and was originally presented weeks before as breaking news by the said channel.

It is clearly evident that the initiator has intentionally created mischief and has had a clear intention to confuse the public. In Sri Lanka, such misinformation and disinformation is a daily occurrence as there are no laws to regulate social media engagement on fake information.

A recent trend emerged in the typically volatile Sri Lankan political arena where opposition politicians accuse the Government of sensitive issues without credible evidence. On several occasions in recent months, these politicians with sinister political motives came out with allegations based on blatant untruth.

Seemingly, they intended to make the fake information go viral on social media and through the ‘voice cuts’ they provide to the television, even to get short time political mileage. These moves can confuse the masses or create mayhem in society, yet they do it for opportunistic political mileage. By the time the truth is unveiled, the damage is done.

On the June 8, Sri Lanka Police issued a statement requesting the public to refrain from sharing fake news on social media. They announced that those who are engaged in such activities can be arrested without a warrant. The Police stated that the perpetrators can be charged under various sections of the Penal Code and several other Acts such as the Computer Crime Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act, and provisions of Obscene Publications Act.

The Government stance at the time of submitting the cabinet paper was that spread of fake news on social media can create divisions in society, cause religious or ethnic tension, and endanger individuals.

The Government believes that such fake news should not be permitted in society. In the same vein, the Government Information Department states that false news is used to weaken public institutions and criticize key officials and policies.

The move has come under fire by the opposition parties and some of the media watchdogs who believe that the Government aims to suppress media freedom that can lead to violating freedom of expression. They fear that criticism of the Government by journalists can be interpreted as false news and penalise them unjustifiably.

Regardless of the outcome of the Government’s decision, every neutral citizen of the country who is unbiased feels that some type of regulatory mechanism must be introduced to curtail fake news. False information can create havoc in society; bring about animosity among communities, and immensely damaging the development of the country.

Fake news, misinformation, and disinformation in any form cannot be accepted in a civil society. Combatting fake news in social media is one of the most challenging tasks for a democratic Government. The spread of news, authentic or fake, is quick on one hand and the public acceptance of such news also is high on the other hand.

Because of the mere power of social media that can reach billions in a flash, the damage fake news can create also can be incomparably harsh. Therefore, effective action should be taken to detect, debunk, and eradicate fake news not only on social media but also in any other medium.