Debashish Chakraborty

Pandemics and 'Infodemics': Fighting the fake news war

A lethal digital epidemic has surfaced across mediums of modern day communication. Through conversations with experts, we try to dissect the problem.

While fake news keeps making the rounds throughout the year, it is only at the time of a crisis that its impact is felt most. There’s misinformation, false claims and pseudo-science cures to a deadly virus galore. In these unprecedented times, with the COVID-19 crisis gripping the country and the number of positive cases on the rise, fake news is an 'infodemic'. Incorrect news, especially the ones spread via social media, may hamper public health, or further aggravate social divisions.

To start with, what really is fake news?

According to Ritu Kapur, co-founder and CEO, The Quint, fake news falls into roughly three categories - misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. “Misinformation is when a piece of news is partially mistakenly, or incorrectly, put out. Disinformation is dangerous as it is when information is manufactured to mislead. Malinformation is the lethal of all because it is manufactured with an intention to initiate hate or harm to a community or individual.” The Quint has a fake news busting arm, called WebQoof.

Ritu Kapur
Ritu Kapur

Santosh Menon, chief content officer, Network18 Digital, defines fake news as information that has no basis in facts or reporting, and is spread to “further a narrow political or sectarian objective”. “Often, the creators of this information know it to be false, but disseminate it, regardless. It is also a pejorative term used by some in public life to label true, but uncomfortable information that is embarrassing to them,” he says.

Santosh Menon
Santosh Menon

Vikram Chandra, founder of Editorji, a newstech startup, and former NDTV CEO, opines that it's the 'facts with opinions' category, which is hard to distinguish. “Say, a piece of information, like 500 new cases discovered, can be interpreted either as an acquirement or can add fuel to the fire; depending on the outlook,” he says.

While it’s primarily misinformation, how does one benefit from spreading it?

People/organisations responsible for curating and publishing fake news often bear a strong belief/sentiment in a particular cause or movement. Since the agendas and theme of these stories are around topics of general interest or mass appeal, the distribution becomes easier and faster.

Vikram Chandra
Vikram Chandra

Chandra believes that at times, it's just a mischievous mind which puts out stories/news which are untrue. “With COVID-19 engulfing the country, this is a purely malicious act, which is dangerous, irresponsible and almost a criminal act,” he adds.

One category of fake news that is bound to get a lot of attention is 'fake homemade cures' for Coronavirus infections. Homemade remedies for the common cold, or increasing immunity, are often passed on as an alternative to getting tested and requisite medical attention. It can, in fact, prove fatal.

Another category is that of news initiating communal tension. Quint's Kapur says, “The most lethal is the communal aspect. Unfortunately, for what happened at Tablighi Jamaat in Nizamuddin, not just the wrongdoers, but the whole community is being held accountable. Old videos are being morphed and circulated; drawing parallels to the incident.”

So, who’s responsible? Is it the creators alone, or should mediums be held accountable, too?

Social media giants like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook – which, otherwise, have been useful communication tools for millions - have constantly faced repercussions, and have often been mentioned as vehicles in the fake news journey.

“WhatsApp is clearly the most susceptible platform because of its end-to-end encryption format/feature, which makes it almost impossible to track the original source and the easy forward feature,” Kapur mentions.

To tackle the issue, WhatsApp recently announced an update, as a result of which, frequently forwarded messages can only be forwarded to one chat at a time. The ‘limit’ kicks in once a message has been previously forwarded over five times. The latest beta release (currently in testing) involves displaying a magnifying glass icon next to these frequently forwarded messages, giving users the option to direct the flagged ones to a web search for verification.

On steps to keep the medium safe and private, Twitter's Mahima Kaul, director, public policy, India and South Asia, says, “To tackle misinformation related to COVID-19, we have broadened our definition of 'harm' to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources.”

Mahima Kaul
Mahima Kaul

She adds, “We’ll continue to prioritise removing content that could directly pose a risk to people’s health or wellbeing… We will enforce this in close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content.”

How to end this menace?

While on the one hand, social platforms are actively taking measures to identify and also purge dangerous accounts, on the other, the scale at which these platforms operate, makes it challenging. With the absence of a 'standard guideline', what options do platforms have?

Quint’s Kapur says, “TikTok is the biggest new entrant which is prone to fake news... Though I believe they have some measures to counter the problem, but considering the scale, they will have to be very aggressive. Especially, when videos on TikTok can be generated in a really short time and thousands are being created every day.”

She adds, “They have taken the initial steps to limit the number of users one can forward to. Facebook and Twitter are also actively participating in fact-checking and are working with publishers and accredited fact-checkers. Further, the accounts sharing false news are also purged. Similarly, YouTube has also started informing viewers about the virus on certain videos.”

“Eventually, with critical and sensitive news in a time like COVID, one would need a set of trained people or journalists to verify that nothing incorrect is being spread. This is an area where the entire industry needs to find a solution. For a long time I have believed that a time is going to come when the unconstrained spread of wrongly interpreted facts and fake news will cost lives. With riots earlier this year, and now with COVID, it has come. And, at last, I am glad there is a recognition of how dangerous this issue can be,” Kapur signs off.

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