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In an unprecedented turn of events, an anguished BJP spokesperson confirmed on Monday that Parliament had been adjourned for a week due to a hostile pillow fight between members of the Congress and those from her own party.
“They started it”, she meekly opines. “And soon enough, there was a mass of feathers flying all over the place. I had to rush immediately because of my allergy.” I’m kidding—but I won’t be surprised if this ‘news’ started doing the rounds on all major social media in the next 24 hours, with concerned citizens lamenting the loss of decorum in the country’s highest legislature.
Proliferation of fake news has definitely been one of the worse byproducts of the age of information overload; the sheer number of stories inundating the internet makes it impossible for an individual reader to verify the veracity of each. Give yourself a pat on the back if you could guess that there was no pillow fight—but remember that many can’t tell the difference (Remember that one uncle who uses a phoney WhatsApp forward as the basis of all his political arguments?)
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign in the USA, entirely fabricated articles gained the confidence of the electorate, at times outperforming legitimate news in terms of likes, comments and shares on Facebook, perhaps because of their unrelenting sensationalism. There was a piece on Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, one on a child sex-slave ring run by Hillary Clinton and people believed these wholeheartedly—both because of their inability to tell that these are untrue and because these stories confirmed their inherent biases about certain candidates.
There is much to fear in a post-truth world in which personal opinion and emotion gain primacy over objective facts as yardsticks for measuring the quality of information. Merely raising awareness about the existence of canards doesn’t help—it often, ironically, worsens the problem because people start labelling as ‘fake’ anything they wish to dismiss, including perfectly accurate reporting.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched a multi-pronged approach to curb misinformation last week. He’s making it easier for users to report hoaxes, collaborating with third party fact-checking organisations and disrupting incentives for financially motivated spamming. But much too often institutional measures such as these fail to contain bogus news, which spreads because people want it to. The onus for confirming the validity of news, then naturally falls on the end user. There are several things you can do to become a more informed consumer of news. Develop the habit of checking whether the assertions made in an article are backed by relevant studies, statistics or fact-based evidence. Does the author cite multiple credible sources? Does the peice allow subjects to respond to criticism?
Secondly, become more aware of your own prejudices, which in important ways shape the way you evaluate news. Do you ever turn to an openly partisan news outlet, because nobody else covers some issue dear to you in as much detail? Do you read reports that go against a cause you care about more critically than usual?
The system which spreads rumours is only as flawed as the people comprising it, and that may include you.