Fake News is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or other media’. Social media has allowed the virtually unchecked spread of misinformation on a huge number of subjects ranging from politics and religion to science and health. Microsoft has found that Fake News is more prevalent in India than in any other country in the world, with 64% of its citizens having encountered Fake News compared with the global average of 57%. Over the last year, information surrounding the COVID19 pandemic has been rampant across social media platforms. The Bruno Kessler Foundation analysed 112 million messages from around the world relating to the pandemic and found that a shocking 40% came from unreliable sources. This phenomenon threatens public health as it is challenging for people to find reliable guidance amongst the sea of unverified claims.

The claims made by Fake News articles are wide ranging. False claims about minority groups deliberately spreading the disease circulated alongside unfounded claims that China had released COVID19 as a biological weapon and that the vibrations from banging plates together would destroy the virus. The anxiety and lack of knowledge about the new disease meant that many misleading claims fell on fertile ground. More recently, conspiracy theories have focused on the vaccines with alarming claims that they cause infertility, contain a microchip to control the mind or contain pork which is forbidden in some religions. The spread of misinformation is blamed for the slow start in the vaccination rollout in India, with the first day of the vaccine programme in New Delhi seeing only a 53% turnout of those who had registered.

It has also been found that exposure to fake news diminishes people’s trust in mainstream media, often by directly discrediting them – accusing them of incompetence, bias or complicity or by eroding people’s trust, by refuting claims made by mainstream media outlets. This can mean readers no longer trust verified information when they are in need of it.

In order to combat the issue of misinformation, it is important to understand the success of Fake News in general and more particularly in India. According to psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, shocking headlines are in part what draws so much attention to Fake News as our minds have adapted to detect and remember new and unexpected information. Furthermore, research has found that content which triggers a strong emotional response, is more likely to go viral.

The algorithms used by social media platforms exacerbate this problem as they prioritise engagement over reliable information. Because many people are unaware that algorithms personalise their News Feeds, it is easy for people to end up unknowingly in a distorted version of reality. Rajneil Kamath, who works for the Indian fact checking portal NewscheckerIn believes that a lack of digital literacy education amidst widespread internet access via smartphones has led to high susceptibility to misinformation.

With more than 300 million users, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market and where more content is forwarded than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, the platform’s end to end encryption means that content cannot be controlled or flagged as unreliable – unlike on Facebook and Twitter. According to Statistica, most people in India trust messages they have received from family and friends so to reduce this network, in 2018 WhatsApp added a feature limiting the forwarding or messages to five chats at a time. While some governments are making social media companies responsible for removing hate speech and other unlawful content from their platforms, human rights groups see this as censorship and open to government manipulation of free speech.

Because the issue of fake news is so multi-faceted, there is no easy, quick fix.

There are several fact checking companies across India, but according to Statistica, 45% of people are unaware that these exist and fact-checking companies are struggling to keep up with the misinformation online. D.C Sharma et al. believe that the independent media has a significant role to play in fighting against health related misinformation by presenting evidence-based news and the risks as well as the benefits of new research and therapies. Perhaps the most sustainable suggestion for combatting Fake News is to educate people in identifying appropriate sources of information as well as thinking critically about rumors they come across online. Finland has put measures in place to educate citizens of all ages on how to avoid falling victim to fake news, an initiative which has put the country top of an annual index measuring resistance to fake news in 35 European countries. Empowering Indians in this way would go a long way to prevent further issues caused by the Fake News phenomenon.

In a world facing innumerable problems, open communication and sharing reliable information has never been more important. Navigating pandemics, fighting injustice and healing a damaged planet will only remain possible if we do not lose sight of the truth.

Credits – Francesca Meynell

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