My father is someone who usually trusts any forward he receives on WhatsApp. Recently, he was terribly upset to learn that ‘rasam powder’ is now the ‘best antibiotic’ for the coronavirus, because he is not a fan of rasam himself. He also showed me an article wherein a doctor in Chennai stated that rasam has ingredients that can ‘kill a foreign host’. I had to show him a fact checked article on how turmeric and lemon cannot cure the coronavirus infection and then I introduced him to AltNews. This led to a visible positive impact on his mental health in these trying times.
As a result, I wondered, is it time to start placing greater emphasis on self-verification of facts as a more optimal way of tackling misinformation?
With the global pandemic controlling every aspect of our lives, one naturally gets curious about it and tends to look for every available information about it. Misinformation via social media platforms may start by being a common form of entertainment. Sadly, for many, it soon transforms into a ‘reliable’ source of information. From articles about medicines being sprayed in the air to kill the coronavirus to a statement by Sadam Hussain saying that the US had threatened Iraq with the virus in 1990, there is absolutely no dearth of creativity in spreading false news. The problem is that it is easy for people to fall prey to fake news and more importantly, they do not know how to get out of the rabbit hole.
There are many ways in which misinformation can be tackled. There are government initiatives like the introduction of an official chatbot on WhatsApp named ‘MyGov Corona News Desk’ which answers queries about the virus with an aim to prevent spreading of rumours during this pandemic. With this initiative, it also intends to calm people and prevent chaos as the chatbot basically helps in creating awareness by providing official documents verifying information about the virus. The government has also launched an official Telegram group which addresses the same concerns.
However, the question which must be raised is whether the use of an official chatbot to advance ‘right information’ is the most efficient way to handle misinformation? In another recent example, the AYUSH ministry released advisories on how homeopathy can prevent the coronavirus infection, which was proved to be false by many scientific sources. This heightens the problem of fake news or the spread of i.e. incorrect information as it comes from an official source. This leads to a certain air of distrust because of how often the so-called reliable institutions and organisations themselves get entangled in the web of misinformation.
Another popular way of tackling misinformation are the initiatives that are taken by intermediaries like WhatsApp and Facebook wanting to become more responsible platforms of engagement. Facebook has claimed that it will take initiatives to tackle misinformation like developing an Artificial Intelligence system that can investigate and deactivate fake accounts disseminating fake news. In another such effort, it has introduced pop-ups and an information centre page which directs the users to the resources of WHO, and immediately removes any content likely to cause ‘imminent physical harm’. Meanwhile, WhatsApp, on the other hand, launched a ‘coronavirus information hub’ which will help people stay more connected during the lockdown. While the efforts taken by the social media intermediaries is much appreciated, it is difficult to understand if these methods would effectively tackle misinformation? In 2016, Facebook’s automated ‘trending stories algorithm’ was proved to be disastrous and was found to have rolled out inaccurate political information.
Following this disaster, Facebook was forced to take down the inaccurate headlines and dismiss this system. This raises the issue of the accountability of the intermediaries having a global user base exercising immense power over what, where and how information is spread. The damage done by them cannot be fixed in the wake of inadequate liability mechanisms.
In light of the above, the only efficient and effective way to prevent the spread of misinformation is self-verification, which means that people who consume the data on an everyday basis educate themselves and acquire the skills to tackle it. This can be done simply by a quick search on Google, or checking for that information or news item on AltNews App, or visiting the official websites to verify the accuracy of the data.
Empirical research conducted in Indonesia analysing the perceived ability of individuals to recognise false information on social media proved that this ability is affected by the levels of income, education, internet skills and attitude towards information verification. This research proved that individuals lie at the centre of “any efforts in tackling the spread of misinformation”. Another study verified that ‘everyday users’ have the power to reduce or mitigate the effects of health misperceptions on social media. Both these studies prove that consumers who play the central role in the spread of misinformation, are also the most efficient and effective in debunking the various myths and fake news. Especially, during a health emergency in the internet era, when the spread of fake news and misinformation is rapid and rampant, it is important for the consumers of information to act responsibly.
There are various ways in which this skill can be taught: creating awareness on television and social media, or innovative initiatives like ‘Fake News Classes’ introduced in government schools in Kerala, where they teach students how to identify and spot misinformation. Even asking questions like “What is the source of that (post/forward)?” is an effective way of averting the mass spreading of misinformation.
In these trying times, it is really important to shift towards a system where self-verification of information is an ‘internet skill’ and an important duty. This is not to say that the efforts made by social media intermediaries and government aren’t appreciated – it is that those steps can be effectively realized only if individuals, i.e. the consumers actively participate by learning to deal with misinformation so that they do not become the carriers of misinformation.
Every stakeholder and especially, the consumers must understand the larger impact of a meagre forward or post on social media. As a result of one such effort, my father did not drink rasam that day but neither should you – it is alright to trust, but verify first.
Mira Swaminathan is a policy officer for the Centre for Internet and Society.