PETALING JAYA: The digital age has greatly changed the way people create and consume information, often leading to the widespread creation and sharing of fake news stories.
Digital culture and social media commentator Niki Cheong thinks netizens have a long way to go when it comes to negotiating the information overload they face in regular Internet use.
“For so long, we believed in the printed word as a truthful institution. Traditional publications such as books, magazines and newspapers cost money to produce, so it’s very likely you won’t find fake information there,” he said.
This mentality of “believing in the black and white” has not changed in the digital age.
“The problem with the Internet is that anyone can publish anything at very little cost, whether it’s satire or a prank with malicious intent. People haven’t learnt to distinguish between these things,” said Cheong.
He was commenting on The World News Daily Report – a website that publishes fictitious news – which posted an article with the headline “Malaysia: Crown Prince converts to Catholicism, shocks Muslim world”.
The website has a disclaimer clause which reads: “World News Daily Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways”.
Cheong said the deluge of online information may also result in netizens accidentally passing along false stories based on snap judgements of headlines and summaries.
“We can’t read everything, there’s not enough time. So we usually assume the stories we see online are real – otherwise, why would people share it?
“It goes back to the nature of social ties. We assume our Facebook timeline is populated by people we know, therefore we trust them. And if we trust someone, we trust what they share with us,” he added.
Netizens can also avoid sharing fake information by being more active in the way they use the Internet, which goes beyond merely retweeting, sharing or liking stories they see online.
“In many ways, those are very passive actions as these functions are made for you. It’s easy for you to carry out these actions – they can be performed without much thought,” he cautioned.
Though online users should make every effort to ensure that stories shared are accurate and authentic, a healthy dose of scepticism can go a long way towards debunking many myths found online.
“In normal life, you take what you hear with a pinch of salt. Why not do the same for what you read on the Internet?” said Cheong.
“We need the equivalent of real life social structures in the context of the Internet to govern or enable our online behaviour. So if you won’t talk to a stranger on the street, why share private information about yourself online?” he added.
Monash University Malaysia (School of Arts and Social Sciences) lecturer Dr Julian Hopkins finds that a person’s online conduct is usually not very different from their behaviour offline.
“For example, people have been sharing rumours and unsubstantiated stories for thousands of years. The key difference with the online environment is that it’s easier to share with more people, and in a faster way,” he said.
As for questionable stories creating an uproar online –- such as the infamous news item alleging that film director Steven Spielberg had killed a triceratops – Hopkins was quick to add that people do not necessarily believe everything they share.
“Sharing information and stories can be a way of enhancing cultural or social capital, by drawing attention to oneself as somebody who has access to information that others in their social circle don’t,” he said.
Netizens can also spot fake news items by checking the source of the news.
For instance, stories from satirical sites such as The Onion have tricked many unsuspecting readers with their professional, newslike format.
While some stories circulating online claim to be true, their use of irrelevant or unreliable sources should set off alarm bells.
“If a story seems unbelievable, it probably is. Check before you forward anything,” he cautioned.
And if netizens share a story later proven to be fake, good online etiquette would necessitate reposting the story in the same place and stating one’s mistake for the record.
“If you see someone posting something false, you should also call attention to the fact. Preferably in a non-confrontational manner,” said Hopkins.
Creating online hoaxes and sharing fake news stories may also hint at a deeper psychological problem, said Perdana University Graduate School of Medicine Assoc Prof of Psychiatry Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj.
This is especially true in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies this year, where many fake stories circulated regarding flights MH370 and MH17, causing great grief to the families of those on board the ill-fated jetliners.
“Many share a common trait, in that they derive great pleasure from the suffering of others. Some also like to assume a position of power, to influence or amaze other people,” said Dr Andrew.
Individuals who suffer from a lack of self-esteem may also assume a fictitious persona online and look for opportunities to capture the public imagination with fake stories.
“If you do not check the authenticity of stories you share, it can also reflect poor self esteem. The rush is an artificial boost. As the first one with new stories in your social circle, there is a false sense of power and importance,” he added.
But malice is not always the sole reason behind the spreading of fake news items.
“Sometimes, people share or create false news with the hope that it will help draw attention to issues which are real. So a fake story about 20 deaths in a bus accident, for instance, may highlight poor road safety in the area,” said Dr Andrew.