Since ancient times, people have often resorted in spreading falsified rumor and misleading information to smear the reputation of their opponent. In 1st century BC, Roman general Marc Antony found himself in the middle of such a counterfeit campaign which labeled him as a drunk, womanizer, and a puppet; eventually leading him to commit suicide. A fraudulent story about a Jewish community brutally murdering Christian infants for ritualistic purposes (blood libel) emerged in Trent, Italy during the 15th century, resulting in enraged Christians arresting and torturing all the Jews in the town; even burning a few of them at the stake. Such frightful and shocking historical anecdotes of politically or religiously motivated propaganda were highly localized at the time. With the advent of internet in today’s age, the spread of such distorted information is global and its impact, far more hazardous.
Appropriately coined ‘Fake News’, such fabricated news articles can be found at every nook and cranny on the internet today – camouflaging itself amidst true and factual based information and spreading through social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. A recent Statistica report claims that more than half of all Americans regularly come across misleading articles on such platforms. Owing true to its inherent nature, present day fake news is also motivated by socio-political and religious agendas; generally consisting of frivolous and sensationalized stories aimed to emotionally provoke individuals. A modern example of such incident could be found in the 2016 US elections, when Facebook was used to deliberately spread false rumors and hoaxes about then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to smear her reputation among non-partisan voters and eventually tilt their vote towards now president Donald Trump. Buzzfeed reports that during the election campaign, fake news garnered more engagement on Facebook than mainstream news, with stories as ridiculous as Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS and Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president gaining notorious publicity. Studies also show that around 29% of tweets circulated on Twitter leading up to the election spread fake or extremely biased news, mostly by fake bot accounts smearing Clinton and supporting Trump. It’s hard not to see how such stories might have impacted the outcome of the election; clearly feeding on the old, gullible, and less educated voter who finds it hard to separate fact from fiction.
As the population of people reverting to seek their daily news from social media increases, fake news keeps spreading its tentacles among the general public around the globe. Reports of fabricated stories affecting the socio-political scenario in Europe and Asia has been well documented in mainstream media. India, home to over 200 million active Whatsapp users, has seen a tremendous surge in fake news being spread through the messaging platform. Post demonetization in November 2016, one such hoax went extremely viral – claiming that the new 2000 rupee note contained an embedded GPS tracker to track its movement across the country. Whatsapp users in India kept forwarding the message around, evoking a false general sense of distrust in the government for secretly spying on its citizens.
Moreover, it’s neither the content nor the global spread of such fraudulent news that’s shocking – it’s their source of origin. BBC reports that a majority of fake news websites that sprung up during the 2016 US campaign have been traced back to a small city in Macedonia, where bored teenagers created such sensational propaganda to earn cash from advertising. Many fake news websites floating around the internet today are created by such people, either out of sheer boredom or for generating revenue from targeted advertising. Clearly, as an individual cannot be stopped from posting content on the internet, the question to be asked is – How can the spread of such falsified information be curbed? First and foremost, people (esp. children) should be educated about media literacy and how they can use basic features like source verification and cross-checking to ensure credibility of the news they are engaging in. Websites like politifact.com (US) and factchecker.in (India) have emerged that cross-checks news articles across the web to promote verified facts rather than opinions. Last but not the least, advanced technologies like artificial intelligence must be implemented across the web to search and flag such misinformation. In today’s age, fake news is a new form of war that kills journalistic integrity by spreading fabricated information to the less informed people. It taps into our emotional vulnerability to create a sense of pseudo-reality that has myriad socio-political impacts. It’s only through education, awareness, and strong vigilance can this spread be stopped for the betterment of our society.