Contradictheory: But how can it be fake news if I believe it's true?


  • Living
  • Sunday, 01 Apr 2018

Longtime readers of Contradictheory know that apart from cars double-parking and Aston Villa FC losing games, one thing that really gets me is when people send viral messages without first checking if they are true.

Am I wrong that if you’re going to send a message about the retrograde of planet Mars heralding the end of our Earth, you should spend five minutes checking whether it's fake news?

At times, the originator will protest by saying they didn’t mean any harm, that they got it from a friend, and better to be safe than sorry. To which I say, much better to be correct and not sorry.

But the junk continues to land on my digital doorstep, despite technology like spam filters. I’m not sure why I would expect otherwise. It’s been going on like this for a long time. Since ancient Egypt, people have gotten messages that advocated them to make a personal copy as a form of prayer.

Assuming the perpetual nature of well-intended uncles and aunties, I imagine them making a dozen copies to send to kin near and far “for good luck”. Should a nephew question the provenance of the document, I’m sure the answer would be, “By the pharaohs, I was given it by a friend. True or not, I don’t know. But no harm sending it on, right?”

I’m not the only one who thinks these messages are harmful. Their previous incarnations were called chain letters, spam, junk mail, and now they're simply known as fake news and heralded as the downfall of democracy.

But what exactly is fake news? Simply put, they are stories that look like they come from a legitimate news source, but they are false.

This isn't new stuff. Yellow journalism was what we used to call sensational newspaper articles that were barely supported by research, designed to attract people’s attention to sell more copies.

The difference now is that viral news spreads faster and looks more personalised than ever. You're not reading about Big Foot in a newspaper full of ridiculous headlines; you're reading something shared to you by a friend whom you trust.

Now, everything has been recoloured by revelations of what Cambridge Analytica has been doing in political elections worldwide. They have been analysing Facebook users to determine who would be susceptible to messages to get them to vote for a particular candidate, and – more importantly – galvanise them to share that message with their friends.

In principle, a democracy thrives when citizens make informed choices. You need to understand what a candidate stands for, and how the stances they take can impact issues that affect you and other citizens.

There used to be this idea that the more information was out there, the better the decisions voters would make. But fake news muddies the water. If the choices you're making are not based on facts, then your basis for voting is sullied.

One important point is that the news doesn’t seem fake to those who send it. This seems ridiculous given the sensational nature of the content. I mean, if it’s too good or too horrible to be true, maybe it probably isn’t. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to discern.

A recent study by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education found that despite being the children of the information age, many had difficulty sorting out real news from the fake.

For example, students were asked to evaluate two Facebook posts announcing Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States. Only a quarter recognised that a blue tick next to the source meant it was one verified by Facebook, and that the other was an impersonator.

To make matters worse, over 30% thought that the fake account was more trustworthy because of “key graphic elements”, i.e. it looked prettier. So, it does look like people need help telling the difference.

The method I've long advocated is educating them through sites like snopes.com and factcheck.org. Make the effort to learn what's right or wrong. The problem is that there are plenty who find it easier to just click on the share or forward button than to check its content.

As I've written before, fact-checking can be hard and complicated.

Another way is relying on technology to discover and manage fake news, like how modern e-mail systems handle spam. The trouble with this is companies who do it are often accused of censoring the Internet. Also, a determined friend will find a way to share a piece of amazing news with you no matter what.

Thirdly – and this is where Malaysia is now – is that we punish those who share fake news. Thus the recent tabling of the “Anti-Fake News Bill 2018” in Parliament.

I like this idea – in principle. I like that if a case comes to court, then unsubstantiated claims will be debated using facts, counter-facts, logic and analysis, and the truth will be laid bare for all to see.

Then I can report those uncles and aunties of mine who keep sending me claims of how the movement of another planet means the end of our world, or why it’s important which booth we go to check our ID on voting day, or how news published two years ago is now “Breaking News!” again.

Not that I want them to go to jail for 10 years or pay half a million ringgit in fines. But I would like them to write me an apology for not checking something first before sending it to me. That would be justice for me.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.


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