WE started off the year with yet another sensational news circulated on WhatsApp. In no time, it became the talk of the town.
Most of us agree that circulation of unverified news can be very damaging and the increase in the trend of such news circulating has reached critical levels.
Many, in their excitement to share, do not first verify the authenticity of the news received. People with educational maturity and a bigger world view might be more circumspect in forwarding messages unless they are sure of its authenticity. However, others who are more gullible may forward such news without realising that it could be fake news.
Of course, in addition to those who may be ignorant, with less educational maturity, the bored and unoccupied and those newly discovering messaging applications, there is another category of people who fully realise that a certain piece of news is fake but send it on anyway. This group can have their own mischievous agenda in spreading fake news.
Then there are those with anti-social personality traits who enjoy evoking emotions of anger and disgust in others.
Why do we fall for fake news? This is due to a feature of human thinking called cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a gap in reasoning, remembering, or evaluating something that can lead to mistaken conclusions. Everyone has them. The more popular the information, the more universal its acceptance.
Fake news takes advantage of the most common mental shortcut, that is partisanship. This is particularly true in instances where fake news is not totally fake. Using some facts as the template, the truth is then embellished with exaggeration and dramatic twists and turns to sensationalise the story and make it more appealing to us. What perpetrators of such news have understood correctly is that there is a tendency for sensational information to stick in our minds. Such motivated dissemination of fake information using social media and messaging applications – and the clever mix of fact with fiction using technology – only makes fake news appear more credible. Even if it is later corrected, the damage is done.
About a decade ago, we had one of our own political figures who admitted using digital imagery to defame a national leader. When the instigator was questioned, he nonchalantly declared that he had created the fake photograph to provoke a discussion on the issue. He even proudly called it “a work of art and a fantasy”.
Studies have shown that news, including fake news, that invoke anger, disgust or sadness tend to be forwarded more than news which invoke joy or surprise. This means that fake news forwarded has a high chance of contributing towards suspicion, distrust, fear and social unrest.
Hateful discussions on the social media, based on fake news, create a vicious cycle of dehumanising others. People are also motivated to believe and spread untruths that conformed to their previously held opinions. In other words, people tend to believe that their perception of reality is the only accurate view, and that those who disagree with them are irrational or biased.
Social psychologist Adam Waytz called such a concept “motivated reasoning”. Some of us like to think our convictions correspond to a higher truth but in fact, we are misinformed. We need to look at the long-term interests of society rather than be consumed by short-term demands and ideals.
The truth is we have all have shared made-up news stories, either knowingly or otherwise. People generally want to be emotionally connected and stay relevant to their family, friends and contacts. Forwarding messages, which they think can be useful to others, is one way of doing that.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) says many Malaysians now get their news off social media, but most still cannot tell the difference between real and fake news.
The Commission also reported that government agencies have had to actively counter false stories going viral on social media, primarily Facebook and WhatsApp.
In circulation late last year was the WhatsApp video featuring a man assaulting a child he tied upside down. Many who spread this video did it out of genuine concern for the child and pushed for apprehending the culprit, without realising that the incident happened in a neighbouring country. The Malaysian Police had to issue a statement to clarify the matter.
According to the MCMC, people are slowly beginning to wise up but more work needs to be done to make rural internet users become more discerning with regards to legitimate sources of news online.
The United States is a ‘pioneer’ in sophisticated fake websites of online newspapers. Most people would not be able to tell the difference as long as it reads like something from a newspaper.
The Star Online also fell victim to this when it was discovered that there was a fake website mimicking the online version of the publication. A few weeks ago, there was another website made to look ‘credible’, quoting the Prime Minister purportedly vilifying a leader of a component political party.
Fake news, which began as satire in the United States, has now become a worldwide phenomenon. With over one billion people now using WhatsApp it has become the default option for spreading rumour widely, quickly and efficiently.
The MCMC says Malaysia is the second biggest social media news consumer in Asia Pacific, just behind Hong Kong. Therefore the potential for mischief is immense.
And then there is this entity called a “troll”.
In my ignorance I thought this merely refered to mythical cave creatures in Scandinavian folklore. Apparently it is an internet slang. According to Wikipedia, a “troll” is a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the Internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory or off-topic messages in an online community, with the intent of provoking readers into displaying emotional responses.
So, trolling has become the latest form of online mischief with the aim of causing grief and unrest. I chanced upon this phenomena when reading about one of our notable and often controversial social activist who became a subject of this form of online harassment recently.
Dissemination of fake news, creation of fake websites and now, trolling, have become such an epidemic that many governments have resorted to introducing legislative safeguards to prevent undesirable consequences of such unbridledd spread of mischievous news. While the need to further tighten the available mechanisms available in Malaysia has been a subject of intense public debate in the recent past few months, the fact remains that the ultimate ownership of restriction and control remains with the discerning individual.
However, people who forward any news to others must be accountable for the potential implication of disseminated messages that can cause confusion, spread hatred or cause social unrest.
Ultimately the circulation of fake news is only as effective as the people who believe in them.
Before you press the send button, always take a moment to evaluate the source of the news received. While the information received may be true, it may not be relevant or current. Many a time we receive news about events that have long passed, outraging people as if it just happenned.
Simply because the message you send says “as forwarded” it does not absolve you of the impact and consequences of sending unverifed news. A quick check on Google may just help you decide if the news is fact or fabrication.
If you have the slightest doubt that a message you received is sensational or motivated with mischievous intent, then just delete it. Feel comforted that you have done your part in reducing the anger, hatred, vindictiveness and despair that seem so prevalent in our society today .
Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj is a Consultant Psychiatrist and President of the Malaysian Mental Health Association. The views expressed are his own.