False News and Anger
By T.R. Raghunandan, 09 Dec 2016

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the challenges of converting information to content that can make people angry, because anger is a great motivator; a call to action. However, there is a flip side to that coin. If the objective of making people angry takes precedence over the information itself, then we have a far more dangerous problem to contend with; the strong incentive to generate false information.

Generating false information to divide and polarise people is as old as the origin of language and communication. However, possibly never has it been so easy or convenient to do so, than today. Social media networks can make false news go viral even in the natural way, but when manipulated, can spread it with unimaginable speed. Apart from the content itself being false, such as, for instance, a doctored video that shows communal trouble, the popularity of the content can be faked, in order to trigger greater, genuine popularity. It is an open secret that posts that rapidly ascend to the top as ‘trending’ ones, on Twitter, reach that status because of fictitious followers and automatic retweets. Thus, when a genuine follower sees the Tweet, she is impressed by the support it has already received. The social media falsehood industry has thus developed two specialisations, namely, the falsehood creating one and the popularity boosting one.

The intriguing question is whether social media platforms such as Facebook, can be pilloried for false information that is spread on it. This question has moved centre-stage as politicians have begun to woo Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook supremo. Donald Trump, the US President-elect, has gone so far as to credit Facebook for his victory.

There are two views on blaming social media. Those who fault it point to the fact that the algorithms that drive content onto one’s feed are not transparent, and are often at loggerheads with one’s own convictions and beliefs. That it happens is not disputed; I have personally been annoyed by Facebook sending me unsolicited content that is contrary to my political, social and environmental ideology. However, it is possible to ensure that such content does not come one’s way. When I deleted such posts, a pop up from Facebook prompted me to answer questions as to why I found the content inappropriate and on repeated occasions I clicked on the box that it goes contrary to my beliefs. Over time, I have noticed that Facebook has stopped beaming such content my way. The other view is that on social media, as in any other interaction, it is open to us to choose the communities and people with whom we ought to interact. If we don’t and we are swayed by content – whether genuine or false – to change our beliefs, then the fault is entirely ours.

I am torn between which views I should take; my heart says to go with the first, that social media is to blame for the power and adverse effects of false information, but my head says that it is up to us to acquire the capability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Last night, I had an opportunity to test myself on whether I should follow my head or my heart, when I received a WhatsApp forward of a blog that purported to reveal a deep international conspiracy to flood India with counterfeit currency. A check of the blogger showed that she, he or it, had not been a consistent blogger for any length of time; this was the first blog of any substance. Second, the blogger’s name seemed to be a crude attempt to evoke nationalistic feelings. Third, the blog casually mentioned two Indian universities that people of a certain political disposition love to hate, as being the recipients of large quantities of counterfeited money. It did so without even pretending to produce evidence. If one recognised these signs, clearly, in my mind, the news was false. However, the comments section of the blog were revealing. Many of those who commented on it were anonymous or operated under pseudonyms. They were abusive and insulted anybody who attempted to question the content and the veracity of the blog. Clearly, what could be seen was how the false information generator and the false information populariser, were operating in tandem.

So what is the lesson for those who want to negate the damage done by false news? The easy response would be to rant, or to demand action upon the social media platform concerned. The more difficult one would be to swiftly counter false news with the right information.

I would opt for the latter. If we are not happy with what we see on social media, it is our responsibility to use our power and that of our organisations to create content to refute false news, rather than waste time resenting it.

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