‘Fake news’, which, according to former US president Barack Obama, creates a 'dust cloud of nonsense', has become one of the most popular ‘socio-political topics’ in the world right now, thanks to the rapidly growing social media presence across the cultures.
As per Collins English Dictionary, fake news is ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.’
But, fake news is nowadays not just ‘news’. It has been an ‘atomic arsenal’ for populists to dictate opinions of their supporters and disseminate their popular rhetoric with supersonic speed and even use it as deterrence against criticism. It sometimes emerges in the disguise of ‘alternative facts’ or in the form of ‘post-truth.’ Fake news is also an effective tool for fakers to prank up their target audience to earn money, an easiest way for the political activists to spur their ‘partisan morons’, an excuse for a government to repress dissidents and subsequently a trap for a tech neophyte.
But, who share fake news? And why? Researchers are split on the answer to the question.
American scholars found ‘age’ and ‘conservative political orientation’ as the strongest factors behind widespread circulation of fake news online. One group says people who shared fake news online are more likely to be ‘lazy’ while others say they are ‘more conservative’.
Quoting The New York Times’ psychologists Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen wrote, social media users whose reasoning has been ‘hijacked by partisan convictions’ and who often ‘fail to exercise their critical faculties’ spread fake news most. The American researchers drew up this conclusion studying the people who shared fake news on Twitter between August and December 2016.
In an analysis, BuzzFeed News has come up with the same explanation. It says ‘hyperpartisan political Facebook pages and websites’ are more prone to spread misleading information.
Fake news has a seasonal outbreak too. Fake news is usually rampant during any crisis, elections and even campaigns. The hoaxers and fakers exploit the opportunity of the wavering psychology of the social media users.
A study of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commissioned on threads of fake news in India, Kenya and Nigeria suggests that those who are ‘conservative’ and apparently have affiliation with political and religious groups significantly contribute to share fake news on online platforms.
A few days ahead of Bangladesh national elections on 30 December 2018, for instance, Facebook removed nine pages and six Facebook accounts for ‘spreading misinformation’ what the Facebook authorities called ‘designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content.’
Twitter later came with the same version after banning 15 accounts ‘for engaging in coordinated platform manipulation.’ In an ‘initial analysis’, Twitter says ‘some of these accounts may have ties to state-sponsored actors.’
WhatsApp banned hundreds of thousands of accounts on the same grounds ahead of the Brazilian election in October 2018, in which far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro introduced the Brazilian version of ‘America First’ in the country.
The American researchers categorised people who were behind sharing fake news during the ‘America First’ election in five slots -- extreme left, left, centre, right, and extreme right.
“Among Twitter users who were on the left or centre of the political spectrum, less than 5 per cent shared fake content. As many as 11 per cent on the right, and 21 per cent on the extreme right, did so,” finds David Lazer, a political-science professor at Northeastern University, in another study.
Following fierce criticism, particularly an interrogation of the chief of the Facebook by the US Congress, the authorities have set up a ‘war room’ to fight back election related fake news in coming days.
Messaging apps, especially Whatsapp, are also struggling in India.
WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million users, the biggest market of the messaging application in India, has already made a huge mess in the country as at least 30 people fell victims of lynching due to circulation of ‘fake news’ through the app since January last year.
BBC's research finds that Indians are ‘reluctant to share messages which they think may incite violence, but they feel duty bound to share nationalistic messages.’
The BBC researchers also say, ‘fake news stories regarding India's progress, Hindu power, and revival of lost Hindu glory are being shared widely without any attempt at fact-checking.’
Sharing fake news, the social media mob dig their own graves, too, as the BBC research warns that the fakers generate the news either to ‘make revenue through advertisements or to collect user data.’
Irrespective of the cultural and political orientations, the fake news disseminators across the globe have two things in common. They are either ‘politically and socially conservative’ or they are ‘stupid ignoramuses.’
In both the ways, fake news is now affecting our everyday life beyond digital borders, casting the darkest shadow on our social and political harmony.
Thus, this is the right time to put up a fight against fake news. The battle is for every one of us. To this end, we do not need plenty of diligence. We just need to be discerning and inquisitive while scrolling down our messaging apps or social media profiles.
*Toriqul Islam is a journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com