Trends, hashtags and popular stories, some of which may not be relevant at all but they are the boon and bane of the Internet. In between this tussle of relevance and just data consumption, a lot of fake news lingers on the Internet. And social media, particularly, plays a very promising role in promulgation of fake news. For many users, social media is the only source of new information or news which has the power to influence people magnificently. This has led to mob deaths in a country like India. Then there are politically funded, aligned and motivated campaigns to spread fake news. Some even argue that fake news presents a kind of existential crisis for the entire social media user base where the very basis of a popular story may be on shaky or fraud soil.
Fake news can be troublesome, irritable and unpleasant but it has been known to make and break elections in countries because it drives the sentiments of people today. This puts a heavier burden on companies operating these platforms to polarise and censor content.
Algorithms and technology work on the principle of popularity which taps into what begins to trend to get the best return on advertisements. In order to generate good revenue, users are often presented with more content from companies and businesses than from people in their social circles. The next big challenge technologically is the use of bots or automated accounts which are programmed to do specific actions like retweet particular tweets, share information with a particular hashtag etc. which leads to content going viral. The way social media posts become news is through these thousands of users oversharing them and the algorithms picking them up to promote them even further. While most of this job may seem innocent and automated, more than ever now, the social responsibility to curb unpleasant and fake news is higher on everyone.
According to a database published by the American broadcaster NBC, after an incident in a university, a hashtag was promoted to write thoughtful messages and prayers. In the viral story of the hashtag, many Russian bots also contributed racist and hate messages with false information.
In the Indian context, given the wider socio-geo-politico-cultural diversity, the risks of incitement to hatred and even riots in some cases are high. People and even social media networks are not well equipped to tell fake news apart from the real one. False information defaming a celebrity, claiming a recent religious riff, hurting international sentiments etc., make big stories and it often takes days before someone breaks the myth. Major social media players are actively blocking bots and accounts spreading fake news, which is not something that they are bound to do, but for the reputation and trust of users, it has become imperative.
Platforms like Facebook have begun to adopt policies against spreading of fake news. In December 2016, Facebook also rolled out a change in their reporting feature which gives users the functionality of flagging particular content as disputed for their review. Users would still be able to share the particular post but with a warning that it is disputed. Having said that, it does not affect trends or things that become popular.
As users, we play a crucial role in facilitation of fake news. While empowering the world, the smartphone has given it the potential to break news from its smallest corner. But there is no check on its veracity at any stage. Something that really interests the circles of the person posting this might just eventually become viral even though not entirely true or a half baked incident. Another challenge is that a lot of fake news promulgation happens over direct messaging and platforms like WhatsApp and Hike, so there is no reporting of content, no public posting but magnanimous damage potential.
With digitisation happening at such pace in the country and penetration of the internet extending to the rural spaces, it has become imperative to talk about stopping the spread of fake news.
There are numerous ways of tackling it: technology, policy, legal sanctions against individuals and companies and setting up of counter speech or anti-fake news entities that work to break the fake stories.
(Author is a Cyber Security and Cyber Law Specialist, ISO 27001 LA, DCPP, Project Manager, Cyber Peace Foundation)