By Tony Sebastian Aug. 27, 2018
Social media proved to be a real star during the Kerala floods, helping in news dissemination, fundraising, and coordinating. But it also put the spotlight on the spread of fake news. The perpetrators of this seemingly innocuous crime are educated people – our own classmates, friends, and parents.
Have you noticed how people who are averse to long-term commitment to relationships are also the most likely to get permanent tattoos? No judgment here, of course, I’m the exact opposite – I stumbled into parenthood with very little clue of what it entails. But a few weeks ago, I nearly decided to get myself inked after I chanced upon the motto of the Royal Society. “Nullius in verba” roughly translates to “take nobody’s word for it”, an exhortation to verify all statements by an appeal to facts. Plus, it’s in Latin, and let’s face it, a foreign language is way cooler for a tattoo.
This is not a new thought, according to our constitution it is the fundamental duty of the people of the Republic of India to “develop scientific temper,” but one that seems to have been long forgotten in the age we live in. The momentary urge to desecrate my body with a needle passed (junk food and an unhealthy lifestyle continued unabated of course), but soon enough the relevance of the simple phrase unravelled in the most saddening ways possible.
The tragedy in Kerala over the last couple of weeks is of unimaginable proportions, but all of us who are away from the state have been made aware of it thanks largely to our number one information source: social media. The people of the state and the ones outside it rallied like never before, coordinating rescue and relief efforts through the power of information dissemination at the speed of light across platforms – fundraising efforts, volunteer coordination, and even rescue efforts were streamlined more effectively through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and more.
But it also shone a light on the biggest malady plaguing our times: The itch to do something manifested through the act of forwarding and sharing every piece of information that came our way. It didn’t matter if the information being passed on was authentic, or old, or verified: We felt righteous satisfaction in “sharing maximum”, since we are a forward-minded generation. As the rescue efforts stretched from hours to days, so did the spread of irrelevant, distracting, and often outright fake and dangerous news – about dams breaking, diseases spreading, and unverified or already-addressed requests for help taking up precious attention and bandwidth. Let’s also not forget that infamous imposter dressed in an army costume spreading outright lies.
We are used to the state of affairs with our own curated sources of information creating our own filter bubbles of confirmation bias. And with the mainstream and other media models being broken up into fights for TRPs and pageviews, clickbaits and sensationalism have become par for the course. And along with it, has brought to the fore its sordid bedfellow, fake news. This is not a problem that is going away any time soon and we are faced with options that aren’t great.
The perpetrators of this seemingly innocuous crime are educated people – our own classmates, friends, and parents.
The events in Kerala showcased to me the best and worst qualities of our generation – the strength, resilience, and willingness to throw oneself into the call of duty when required, but also the (mostly) unintentional spreading of unverified information causing a great deal of damage. Of course, we have learned by now that there are rogue agents engaged in creating fake news but their stories have found lives with the oxygen of publicity given by the ease of sharing (mis)information.
The perpetrators of this seemingly innocuous crime are educated people – our own classmates, friends, and parents. And knowing them as people outside of their phones, they are all good people at heart. It seems to me that an education in internet etiquette is essential for everyone around us. There is no shame in this either. If you ask the nerds from Silicon Valley or startups in Bangalore to dance to the beat like most people intuitively do, there are likely to be toe jams bigger than the city’s most popular variety of jam – traffic. Why then do we expect everyone, and especially the older generation, to understand the nuances of a completely new universe of internet and technology?
Facebook has time and again committed publicly to checking the spread of fake news on its platform, but the truth remains that the technology they own is too powerful for them to control. Even the newer measures on WhatsApp – restricting the forward option to five chats – is clearly not good enough. Someone suggested that WhatsApp should turn to an Instagram format, with no forward option. They need to do more. It is their responsibility to teach people how to use their platform for good. Every time you forward something, it should popup an intermediate screen that asks, “Have you fact-checked this? Here are a few ways in which you can verify information…” Because it’s not enough to cut down on a conduit through which hate flows, it is important to strike at the root.
But until the time that platform owners figure out how to tackle this, our fate is quite literally in our own hands. And we need to be advocates of the simple enough mantra: Nullius in verba. And we need to understand that some people may need hand-holding with the newer construct of unverified information being sent on all the time. Every WhatsApp family and friends group you are on is an opportunity to instil this easy lesson to people who have not thought about it enough.
So the next time your uncle forwards a fake quote attributed to Mandela which claims he was against reservation, all you need to do is paste the relevant part from the first Wikipedia article (with references) which proves that it is fake. (For added benefit of feeling smug about yourself, please feel free to teach him about confirmation bias and privilege as well.) Every forward you receive can be fact-checked and you can point out how you did it, and why it is important. Sure, you may not receive a Christmas card from them this year, but you’ll likely not receive a fake video of a man in an army uniform, or an audio clip of a man who does not know the meaning of the word “privilege”.
If you’re sceptical about the efficacy of what small actions can do, there is a magnificent proof staring us straight in the face: Wikipedia. A crowdsourced fount of all the information in the world that’s managed to survive and thrive in a universe of mischief-makers. We need to take up the mantle of mini-moderators to create a better media world for ourselves. It’s 2018, we don’t need fat-shaming, but we definitely need fact-shaming.
Tony Sebastian is an accidental digital marketer based in Mumbai. When he is not being chided by someone for spending too much time on his phone, he is a wordplay enthusiast and an ex-cryptic crossword setter for publications such as The Hindu and Mint.