How pandemics foster fake news
How pandemics foster fake news|Photo credit: The Olive Press

This Is The Last Piece I Am Ever Writing

A diatribe on how pandemics feed and foster fake news

Prem Shanker

Prem Shanker

The pandemic spreading over WhatsApp is way more rapid than the spread of COVID-19. We have figured out that novel coronavirus travels through droplets from human to human or from surfaces to human, but it looks like it would take a lot more research to find out what exactly makes the social media misinformation pandemic spread.

Misinformation pandemic spreads from phone to phone, and now thanks to social distancing, not human to human.

One mobile phone receives a message about what the Indian Prime Minister is going to announce in his first address to the nation since the onset of the novel coronavirus. Within seconds it spreads to millions of Indians. And before someone found out that the message actually pertains to a meeting chaired by the Malaysian Prime Minister and has nothing to do with India - the damage was done. Panic buying began across the country anticipating a complete lockdown.

What causes this urge to forward something? There may have been several studies done on this. But I narrow down my understanding of this to a simple theory. A theory which I attempt to tell through a personal story.

When I was a young journalist, I had a friend from my college who used to talk to me about various issues. He was politically well connected and used to tip me off on developments. More than a friend, he became a source, a contact.

Around that time, a cousin of mine would talk to me too. This cousin who was abroad used to call me over phone and discuss regional politics in a rather in-depth manner. He was not a journalist, but aside from his high flying job, he always took time to discuss politics.

Now these two persons, often used the words "Why don't you write this?" "Why don't you write that?" It was the time of no social media. I am talking at least about three decades ago. Internet was expensive and you had to pay for text messages.

Both these men were very sensible and on top of the game when it came to understanding general politics and in terms of networking, but one thing they could not or probably did not comprehend doing then was mass communication. That is where I came in. They tried to feed me information or perspectives from their point of view or with their interests in mind and it was up to me to verify it and use it the way I thought was journalistically right.

Cut to present day. Both these guys are still around. Hardly do I get calls from them. They ping me on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter once in a blue moon. But guess what? They are both social media darlings.

They have thousands of followers on Twitter.

So why these two guys?

Social media changed their lives. They reach out to the world. They mass communicate. To many, they are the media now. And their followers love them, some hate them, some troll them, they troll them back.

Sounds familiar?

We are all mass communicating now. There is an urge to give out information. We like to jolt people with our own information or with forwards that jolted us.

Let us not talk about the ones who create fake news, and keep the focus on many of us who have the urge to forward them.

People I speak to when they have forwarded stuff to a WhatsApp group that I am a part of, tell me that they did not know it was fake news and that they really believed them.

"Free internet bandwidth during Corona?" Who in their right minds will believe this and download a malware link that comes along with it? Apparently many did. Many intelligent, responsible persons, cool friends, many of them bought it. Many clicked on the malware and then frantically messaged back in the group saying "don't click...don't click" without even exercising the "Delete for everyone" option.

When a friend sent a forwarded message to one of our college WhatsApp group saying something like "from tomorrow onwards government will have complete access to your mobile phones" or something to that effect, I just had to respond.

I tried to keep it as simple and said "It's simple… if it doesn't say who's making the announcement. If it's not from a credible news source. If it doesn't talk about any specific geography or date. Doesn't have an attribution to any authority or person, and does not have any detail that you can verify, it's most often fake."

I know there's so much more to fake news and fact checking, but for my friends who do not like reading long pieces, I thought it was essential to keep it simple and short.

To elaborate it a bit to all those who relate to any of the instances mentioned above, here's my theory.

Many people holding a phone with WhatsApp on it, feel the urge to mass communicate, do the job of a reporter, try to inform, to shock, to caution, to warn, to humour someone else or many others at the same time.

It is fine. But if we all really want to do the job of a reporter, then maybe we should understand what a trained reporter really does.

No, what follows is not a crash course in the basics or reporting; but a quick word on the basic tenet of reporting - verification.

Reporters are trained to look at every information with a bit of scepticism. They look at information with an element of doubt. They verify. Then they verify again. And finally, they verify once more before finally writing their story, which then goes to edit before it is finally published.

This of course is old school journalism. But most seasoned journalists, reporters who are in the frontline of disseminating information are used to this rigour.

That's where we jump in with our mobile phones forwarding a Malaysian Government notice as leaked information from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office.

If your question is "How do I verify?" You could try these three simple steps:

Step One: Ask the person who sent it to you if she or he has verified the content before sending it to you.

Step Two: Call the number if the content you are planning on forwarding has any phone number in it. If it is attributed to any office, Google the name and number of the office and call them to verify if the content is true.

Step Three: Google your content and see if someone has already debunked it (most often the fact check sites like Alt News or Boom Live would have already run it through their system)

If you are thinking "it is not my job to do all these things, I just want to forward until someone verifies it and tells me" then please do not take up the role of a journalist and just give up the thought of forwarding information - even if your intentions are good. At least in these trying times.

Long messages on social media are rarely read till the end. If you get this piece I have written through some social media platform and if you have read this far - then you my friend will know that the headline was just to get you to read this piece. The audience I am targeting and hoping to reach, know this 'Click Bait' headline technique, all too well.

Of course, this is not the last thing I will be writing. At least I hope not!

The Lede