Fake news and the difference from fact
Contrary to the belief that social media is empowering free-thinking young democrats, it has formulated a generation that has little or no idea of what is fact and fake
On March 21, 2006, The Guardian published an article titled, ‘Blogging is not journalism'. Written by French journalist Agnes Poirier, the piece criticised the trend of blogging. She lamented that rants devoid of any real analysis or research were being posted by untrained writers and these were being perceived as reports and facts. I remember, when in 2007, someone shared this piece on Facebook, Poirier was instantly attacked by young people from across the globe for being ‘elitist’.
One guy posted that “the likes of her” were “stuck in the old, worn-out ideas of journalism”. Many of the commenters agreed with him claiming that Agnes Poirier did not understand the ‘fact’ that the entire social media phenomenon was “an expression of real democracy”. Well, the blogging trend eventually went out the window but the narrative that social media was some kind of a new, more participatory and dynamic expression of ‘direct democracy' remained. This narrative, of course, was not only further evolved and proliferated by popular social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, but it was also often endorsed by websites of various mainstream media outlets.
Nevertheless, there were always a few folks out there who were sceptical. They just couldn't understand how the rather anarchic stream of so-called information and opinions — which are often fattened by choice expletives and sometimes even threats — had anything to do with democracy. They argued that democracy is best served by informed opinions and is driven by various Constitutional checks and balances. Otherwise, it becomes a ‘mobocracy’ — or worse, sheer anarchy. This is what the sceptics feared social media would become.
Recently, I was part of a very interesting round table discussion in Washington, DC, which included scholars and policy experts from the United States, South America, South Asia and Africa. One of the topics of discussion was the way issues like fake news and data gathering by social media sites was retarding the manner in which established democracies function and how these Internet-based outlets are actually (and negatively) influencing the outcome of elections.
Based on the opinions of learned men and women at the meeting, I can confidently conclude that the whole idea of social media being some radical millennial expression of direct democracy has finally gone bust. According to some experts at the meeting, contrary to the now fading belief that social media outlets were empowering a new breed of free-thinking young democrats, these outlets have actually formulated a generation that has little or no idea how to discern between what is fact and what is fake.
In October 2012, the then 15-year-old schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by the Taliban and then flown to the United Kingdom for treatment. The former Editor of the web edition of Dawn, (late) Musadiq Sanwal, mailed me some links to Internet forums, television shows and Facebook discussions. In each of these, there were men and women casting doubts about the shooting. As the young schoolgirl fought for her life in a UK hospital, many had even gone on to curse her for being a Western stooge. I was shocked. Musadiq asked me to write something about it. But I just couldn't. I was completely stumped.
Understanding my dilemma, he asked me to satirise the critics. And thus was born the piece, ‘Malala: The real story (with evidence)’. After a few hours of the story going online, I received a call from Musadiq. He told me that the publishers of Dawn are getting calls from various quarters demanding that the writer mention the sources behind his ‘exposé’. An hour later, I received another call from him. He said that the website of Iran's official television outlet, Press TV, had lifted the piece and published it as fact. A number of websites of some local Urdu newspapers had done the same.
He added that men and women, who had taken the satire as fact, had made it viral. Musadiq also told me that the publishers were asking for the story to be taken down, but he had offered them an alternative: He would add a disclaimer at the bottom of the piece saying: “This is a piece of satire.” I agreed. Eventually, Dawn.com had to put another disclaimer, one right at the beginning and one at the end.
The next day, the surreal event made its way to one of the leading US dailies, The Washington Post. Its reporter seemed to be as bemused by what had transpired as I was. Now let me share with you some salient points of my ‘exposé': Malala was not Pakhtun but was born to Hungarian parents who named her Jane. The parents were recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and sent to Pakistan as Christian preachers who knew hypnosis and karate. It just goes on and on with rubbish about earwax, Robert De Nero, bungee jumping and an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent who always appears in front of a ‘reporter' in a Spiderman costume! How on earth can anyone take all this as fact? Indeed, it is written in the manner of a news report, but clearly as satire. The thing is, Urdu translations of the piece are still doing the rounds on social media and WhatsApp groups.
Writing in the January 6, 2018 issue of one of America's leading science magazines Psychology Today, Dr David Ludden explains that three ‘motivations' drive many people to accept fake news and conspiracy theories as fact.
The first is the inherent human desire to understand complex incidents. But most people are likely to adopt an explanation which most suits their set of beliefs.
The second motivation is to reinforce certainty by believing in theories that do not contradict one's long-held habits.
The third is about self-image: According to Ludden, “people with low self-esteem” hold on to theories which they feel makes them look and sound important. This way they develop a self-image which makes them feel relevant (at least in their heads). When they share them with like-minded people on social media, they feel they have become part of an exclusive community.
Thus, says Ludden, even solid facts can't deter such people from changing their views because by defending their theories (no matter how contradictory), they are actually defending their new-found self-image. In other words, self-image trumps facts.
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