Have we lost the ability to differentiate between truths and lies? Are we complicit in the spread of misinformation?
THOSE who are privileged enough to have the freedom of speech often take it for granted.
After all, how often do we consider the impact and value of our words? And more so, when it comes to saying things on social media platforms with large audiences who have the propensity to share?
In this age of post-truth, something as harmless as a meme or joke has the potential of travelling around the globe at lightning speed and go viral in a matter of minutes. And it’s no wonder given the incredible number of people spreading information.
According to Statista.com, the number of smartphone users worldwide today surpasses three billion and is forecast to further grow by several hundred million in the next few years.
By 2025, it is estimated that there will be 33.46 million social network users in Malaysia alone, up from about 29 million in 2019.
Perhaps some of you may have recently received a whatsapp message with a 15-second clip of a giant creature leaping out of an ocean and attacking a helicopter, with a little message saying that “National Geographic paid a million dollars for this ‘rare video’.”
The clip, in fact, comes from the 2017 movie 5 Headed Shark Attack (yes, some B-Grade flick about a sea creature shaped like a demented starfish which terrorises the open ocean and consumes a helicopter for breakfast).
The fake information in this Whatsapp forward is that “National Geographic paid a million dollars for this ‘rare video’”... a claim that has been used in other pranks as well, including a video showing several destructive tornadoes, again from another 2017 movie, Into The Storm.
In Caroline Jack’s Lexicon of Lies, the Data & Society postdoctoral scholar talks about how people use media to intentionally spread fabricated, inaccurate or exaggerated information to convey a critique or cultural commentary, and she includes satire, parody and hoaxing as examples.
Jack says that people who create satires and parodies typically do not expect their works to be taken at face value. Rather, they assume that the audience will be in on the joke.
A hoax, on the other hand, is a deliberate deception that plays on people’s willingness to believe.
In reality, many people actually fall for this sort of misinformation, no matter how far-fetched.
And if people can be duped by seemingly absurd clips like the sea creature jumping out of the water and gobbling up a helicopter, what else could be out there waiting to trap them in the World Wide Web?
Search, not share
Dr Tan Meng Yoe of Monash University Malaysia says there are several types of what is broadly described as fake news.
“The one that concerns me are forwarded messages and images on social media and chat groups like WhatsApp.
“They can take the form of biased commentary based on fabricated information designed to incite prejudice, fake health information, alarmist content, and more, ” says Tan, course coordinator of Master in Communications and Media Studies at Monash.
“However, the content does not worry me as much as the platforms. The level of trust within these chat groups may be high, increasing the chances of misinformation being accepted as truth.”
While there is no simple formula to filter out fake news, there are many ways to recognise it, says Tan.
“For starters, if you cannot immediately identify and verify where the news comes from, that should be a warning sign.
“It is actually not hard to recognise fake news. There are many signs, like if the information is too good to be true, if it is not reported elsewhere, if sources and quotes are either non-existent or made by obscure individuals, if it is overly alarmist in nature or tends to be biased.”
As a lecturer in Communications, part of Tan’s job is to educate others on how to respond to misinformation.
“Firstly, we must teach that the first response to any news is to ‘search, not share’.
“When we receive messages, or read articles, regardless of whether we agree with them or not, we must stop ourselves from hitting the ‘share’ or ‘forward’ button.
“Instead, we should ask someone else about it, or search for more information online to verify the news. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a useful filter.”
Tan adds: “The more crucial solution to combating fake news is actually cultivating an inquisitive and critical mind. That way, we are less likely to blindly believe everything that comes our way.
“False content will always exist. However, it loses its power once we stop sharing it.”
Advent of fake news
Dissemination of fake news is nothing new, says Dr Moonyati Yatid in a 2018 article Telling the Real from the Fake.
With the rise of social media and instant messaging platforms which have become the primary source of information to users, the speed with which news spreads is much faster, says the senior analyst on the Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability (TIES) Programme of ISIS Malaysia.
In a paper she wrote for IKAT (Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies) titled Truth Tampering through Social Media: Malaysia’s Approach in Fighting Disinformation and Misinformation, Moonyati says the term “fake news” gained the attention of societies from all over the world since end of 2016.
She highlighted a spike in the usage of the term by leaders around the world.
“A search on Google for the term in November 2018 showed 702,000,000 results.
“However, the catch-all term is not only poorly defined, but also highly politicised by the Trump administration against journalists and news organisations who disagree with their perspective.”
Although the colloquial term is widely used, Moonyati opines that it is only a fraction of a larger phenomenon called “disinformation and misinformation”, which is under the umbrella of “information disorder”. This can be divided into:
> Misinformation: Information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm.
> Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country.
> Mal-information: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organisation or country.
For regular people using social media on a daily basis, it is good to be aware of the distinction between these types of information and, like Tan suggests, cultivate a critical mind so we can distinguish between various types of information before we create something (posts, opinions, articles and memes) or forward something we receive.
Timothy Johnson of INTI International University & Colleges uses Merrimack College professor Melissa Zimdars’ definition of fake news to help him separate the truth from lies.
The senior vice president of marketing, products and partnerships at INTI narrows it down to four broad categories of news sources:
> False or misleading websites that are shared on social media. Some of these websites may rely on distorted headlines and decontextualised information to generate likes, shares and profits.
> Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information.
> Websites that sometimes use clickbait headlines and social media descriptions.
> Satire/comedy sites which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news.
“Within the Malaysian context, all four of these are prevalent in one sense or another, and often fake news can be carried across more than one category at a given time.
“The wider the reach and form of fake news, the more advantage it gives those spreading it and the more likely it is to cause damage to individuals and communities, especially those with malicious intent or outcomes, ” Johnson says.
In his supervisory role at INTI, Johnson needs to be at the forefront of news and information.
“Unfortunately, the lines between fake and real news are becoming harder to read, ” he admits.
“Those spreading fake news have adapted to appearing more professional and ‘reputable’ on the one hand, while brands are adopting informal marketing and content approaches on the other, in a bid to connect with their customer base.
“With this in mind, when in doubt, a little fact checking goes a long way. In the age of the Internet, knowledge is power and almost everything we could ever want to know is conveniently packed into a hand-held mobile device.”
Jonson’s quick tips, like Tan’s, include checking the source, checking how far the story has reached, adopting a critical view and watching out for those “slightly off” differences – this includes website names, email addresses and even images.
“Ask yourself: Would the reputable sites you are familiar with have these types of headlines or images?” says Johnson.
When it comes to educating others, Johnson advises that everyone should take the time to check, before creating, before posting and before sharing.
“In today’s world where the quickness of content often trumps the veracity of information, there is a need to take those few moments to verify what is about to be posted or shared.
“Often when fake news bubbles up, it’s good to take a step back and see where it is being shared before sharing it yourself.
“There is also a value in highlighting if something is fake news to others. For example, the most common spread of fake news is often through Whatsapp groups among family, friends and even among work and professional circles.
“Respectfully (and even privately) highlighting that something shared is fake and may be damaging if taken at face value helps to educate others on being wary of things being shared, especially in online spaces.”
Johnson feels that making the effort to raise this – which we often shy away from – is one effective way of helping others to be more mindful and aware of what they are saying, reading, sharing and posting.