Most People Trust 'Neutral Media', Says New Report on Fake News

The survey found that it is those under 20 and over 50 – the young and the old – who are most susceptible to fake news.

New Delhi: A new report looks at the specific nature of the fake news problem in India. The report assumes significance in the run up to the Indian general elections this year, as a number of other countries like Brazil and the US have seen damaging upticks in the spread of fake news around elections.

The presence of misinformation and fake news raises the “possibility of false and misleading information swaying the election”, says the report.

The report, titled ‘Countering Misinformation (Fake News) in India: Solutions and Strategies’, has been published by Factly Media and Research and the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

While much of the research, literature and policy interventions on fake news has happened by the West or in the West, this report aims to provide an India-specific understanding of the phenomenon.

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One part of the report is a web survey of 1,286 respondents. They were asked to identify a number of statements as true or false and give reasons. The report says there could be a margin of error of 3-5%.

The survey found that it is those under 20 and over 50 – the young and the old – who are most susceptible to fake news.

These are also the brackets that may be relatively new to the use of technology such as internet and smartphones. Those who are less familiar are also more susceptible to falling for fake news, says the report.

Mainstream media versus social media

With regard to sources of news, the survey found that newspapers still remains the top source of information for people across age groups, while social media usage is largely motivated by the desire to connect with family and friends and to exchange relevant information.

But trust in mainstream media is low. This is what drives people to share information on social media instead.

If there is trust in the media, then people tend to trust “neutral media.”

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However, the report says that many media organisations are directly owned or affiliated with specific political ideologies and are “at risk of reporting information that supports a particular ideology without evidence”.

Apart from the “neutral media,” people also trust fact-checking organisations. Fake news has a greater chance of being correctly identified and dispelled when it is countered by multiple organisations.

But many people do not know about dedicated fact-checking organisations. And people do not do fact-checks themselves, but can verify information if they are pushed to do so.

What are the solutions?

The report has made a range of recommendations for the government, law enforcers, technology platforms, the media and academics.

Firstly, the government can look into promoting greater digital literacy. Governance itself will need to adequately factor in the digital directions India is taking.

Law enforcement has so far resorted to internet shutdowns as a solution to stem violence that breaks out due to fake news or due to the spread of news online. This is not a solution, says the report, “but an indication that the government is not equipped or does not have the capacities and procedures in place that could implicate bad actors.”

Instead, the report suggests a special section in the Indian Penal Code to allow law enforcers to collect, report and follow criminal proceedings on hate crime which is linked to misinformation.

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Technology platforms need to have professionals stationed in India to work closely with user complaints, law enforcers and governments. Social media platforms also need to be accountable as many of them have audiences much larger than single newspapers or TV channels, but they are not held to the same standards as these media organisations.

Media organisations need to be careful about their political alliances that can slant them towards certain kinds of reporting, which may not be backed by enough evidence. Media houses also need to invest in staff that is literate enough on digital technology’s extents and limits, says the report. Robust and multi-layered systems of verification need to be in place with an emphasis on quality and not just volume. Hiring should be diverse so that people in the newsroom are also pushed to verify each other.

Lastly, the report recommends that academia does not look at this problem as one solely to do with technology but one that looks at the intersection of technology with human behavior.