Eliminating fake news | Daily News

Eliminating fake news

Here is the plain truth: Lies travel much faster than the truth ever does. As the saying goes, a Lie can go halfway around the world before the Truth has a chance to put its pants on. This is even more so in this age of instant online communication inclusive of the likes of Skype, Viber, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Twitter, What’s App and IMO. Someone in say, Rio de Janeiro can almost instantly know what is apparently happening in Colombo, whether true or false.

It is no secret that lies and fake news (news that appears to be real, but is not) are mostly conveyed through social media sites (ex: Facebook) and instant messaging apps (ex: What’s App). With a reach of billions of people, they have the power to shape opinions and worryingly, create hate and animosity against particular individuals, countries, communities or groups.

Hence the Government’s timely decision to temporarily block a number of social media networks and messaging apps in the wake of recent incidents in the Kandy region. It has been clear for some time that extremists on all sides have been spreading lies and fake news online, targeting various communities and religious groups. These have the potential to inflame racial passions that can lead to disastrous consequences, as we have just witnessed. The very nature of the Internet means that anyone can post anything on social media or other websites with hardly any control over the contents therein.

There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. In fact, this has been well demonstrated in recent elections held in several countries where foreign countries or agents had created Facebook posts and Twitter feeds aimed at (successfully) influencing the voters. A new study conducted recently has confirmed what we already know – that social networks are one giant web of lies, deceit and intrigue.

This study, just published in the journal Science, used a data set of rumour cascades on Twitter from 2006 (the year Twitter started) to 2017. About 126,000 rumours were spread by over three million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominated the truth on Twitter, the study found. Fake news and false rumours reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.

A false story is much more likely to go viral than a real story, the authors found. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does. And while false stories outperform the truth on every subject—including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment—fake news about politics regularly does best. This is basically true of every other social network or messaging platform. And just don’t blame the “bots’ as automated response generators are known - from 2006 to 2016, Twitter bots amplified true stories as much as they amplified false ones, the study found. Fake news prospers, the authors wrote, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.” Besides, robots have no emotions, at least for the moment.

Social media networks know they have a huge problem on their hands. After years of denial, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself admitted last year that fake news and other incendiary material on their site was a real problem that called for urgent solutions. They are now working with various Governments including Sri Lanka to identify hate posts and fake news items and remove them from the platform. It is also redesigning the news feed to filter out fake news where possible. This is an essential exercise, because democracy, pluralism and ethnic harmony will all be affected if falsehoods gain the upper hand.

While social media networks and Governments do their part, we have to do ours. Resist the urge to hit the share or like button on every Facebook post that you see, especially politically or ethnically sensitive ones. Just ask yourself – could this news be true? If you know someone mentioned in a post or someone living in an area mentioned just pick up the phone and ask them. There are also “fact-checking” websites such as Snopes.Com which verify worldwide news and rumours. If you get to know or even think that a post could be false, stop sharing it online and tell others too.

The social media blackout is being seen as a blessing in disguise by many, who are rediscovering the good old ways of “socializing”. It has been shown that Facebook can actually make you depressed after seeing your friends’ vacation pictures etc. Here is an opportunity to just switch off, meet your friends in person, chat by conventional phone/SMS and read a normal newspaper. One is more likely to come across the actual truth in this way.


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