Fake news is spreading faster than coronavirus

As the mortal coronavirus infection is spreading rapidly in India and other parts of the world, the spread of fake news is even faster


As the mortal coronavirus infection is spreading rapidly in India and other parts of the world, the spread of fake news is even faster. The World Health Organisation (WHO) termed it as 'infodemic' of misinformation. They explained that infodemics are an excessive amount of information about the problem, which makes it difficult to identify a solution. They can spread misinformation, disinformation, and rumours during a health emergency. Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people. 

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO had said at a gathering of foreign policy and security experts in Munich, Germany, in mid-February, referring to fake news that “spreads faster and more easily than this virus.”

The topic of fake news is as old as the news media itself and is more harmful than the state of unawareness of any particular topic. Fake news is any information or its sources that cannot be verified. It is also a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.

Data Source- Boom

According to the Boom report, most of the COVID-19 related misinformation was shared via videos 35.03 percent, while images and text messages followed closely with 29.38 percent each.

Impact of the fake news on the global economy

CHEQ is a cyber-security firm that researched with University  of Baltimore, US and found that online fake news costs the global economy $78 billion annually. The report, which was released last year and analyzed the direct economic cost from fake news, also found that fake news has contributed a loss in the stock market value of about $39 billion a year. The World Economic Forum has classified the spread of online misinformation among the world's top global risks under its Global Risks Report 2018. According to an assessment by at the University of Baltimore, the global political spending on advancing fake news reaches at least $400 million. Out of which expenditure in India is about $140 million.

The impact of fake news is not limited to one sector. Big brands have suffered because many websites display their brand name alongside offensive and false material that they do not support. The Global Disinformation Index has found that the annual revenue of at least $235 million is generated from advertisements running on extremist and disinformation websites.

Social media widely used for news

Mike Paul, President of Reputation Doctor, a public relations firm says that "Fake news today is like a modern-day tech suicide bomber in the worlds of communication, reputation, and branding. It only takes one well-planned success to hurt a lot of people or an organization."

The 2019 annual Reuters Institute India Digital News report found that Indians primarily get their online news on mobile phones. Out of those surveyed, 68 percent classified smartphones as their primary online news tool. Facebook and WhatsApp are particularly popular, with 75 percent of respondents using Facebook (52 percent said they get news there) and 82 percent of respondents using WhatsApp (52 percent said they get news there). Other social media widely used for news include Instagram (26 percent), Twitter (18 percent), and Facebook Messenger (16 percent). The report found that 57 percent of the respondents were worried about the online news they came across as real or false.

Measures to control the spread of fake news

Famous platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter, to name a few, are some popular social media sites that have in some small ways tried to restrict the spread of fake news: 

Facebook - Facebook, an American online social media and social networking service has taken a number of measures to contain the spread of misinformation on its platform, including the partnership with 60 fact-checking organizations. They also announced funding the News Integrity Initiative, which addresses the problems of misinformation, disinformation, and the opportunities the internet provides to inform the public conversation in new ways. In line with its initiative, Facebook has acquired Bloomsbury AI to intensify its fight against fake news. In March alone, it has removed 40 million posts which were related to COVID-19, based on around 4,000 articles by its independent fact-checking partners. Facebook informs its users through notification if they like any fake content. 

WhatsApp - As a result of its increasing popularity as a means to share news and information, WhatsApp is increasingly used in India as the main source of providing online misinformation. End-to-end encryption makes it difficult to determine the source and trace the messages found therein. In 2018, the Indian The government formally asked the messaging platform to come out with effective solutions that can bring in accountability and transparency, and facilitate enforcement of the law against the dissemination of wrong information. Since then the company has taken a few measures to restrict content sharing on its platform. A limit has been put on the number of times messages can be forwarded. During this pandemic, a user can forward a message to a single user at a time.

Twitter – The American microblogging and social networking service company has also taken several steps to curb the menace of misleading and false information. Twitter has verified more than 34 lakh accounts which were sharing COVID-19 related content. A new feature has been introduced which labels or puts warning messages about a tweet containing disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19.

The menace of misinformation is felt at various levels. We will see several changes in the coming months. In its proposed IT intermediary guidelines the government has added provision which makes social media companies responsible for all content created by non-users, including sponsored content published on their platforms. Once it gets notified, it would bind social media sites to adequately tag and classify all the sponsored material published on their platforms. On the other side Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and leading social media companies Google, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, parent company Bytedance, are exploring ways to form an industry-wide alliance to curb fake news. The proposed alliance would be named as Information Trust Alliance (ITO) and it will bring together all stakeholders mainly publishers, fact-checkers, academia, and civil society.

The most important risk associated with fake news is that it threatens the capacity of society to participate in mutual fact-based reasoned debate. It not only weakens trust and limits one's thought, but it also results in increased fragmentation and politicization. So, an individual needs to participate in the fight against misinformation.

Time for the CRAAP test

As it's rightly said, prevention is always better than cure. So, to avoid circulating fake news and how one can spot it, this test can be a very helpful evaluation tool. There are five-point evaluation criteria made for the purpose to check whether the sources are correct and trustworthy to use as tools for research. This was developed by Sarah Blakeslee and her team of librarians as CRAAP 

MODEL at California State University, Chico to make it easier for educators and students to determine if their sources can be trusted. However, it can also be used for other purposes too, like verifying the information is fake or not.

By employing the test while evaluating sources, a researcher can reduce the likelihood of using unreliable information. CRAAP stands for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. Let's understand each, one by one:

Currency - Check whether the information you encounter is a recent one or not. First, check the time. It will help you identify whether the information concerned isn't out-dated or rotten. The next step is to determine whether there have been any important development and discoveries concerning the news/information since the time it was published. Look for revisions and updates. If the source comes from a website, you may test the links to ensure that they are working or not.

Relevance - Evaluate how well the information relates to your needs, and how much uniqueness it adds. The information must be easy to comprehend for its target audience.

Authority- Determine the source- who wrote, produced, publisher and sponsor, in short, all the parties concerned in the development of the information. This adds to the relevance and makes it more authentic and trustworthy.

Accuracy - Emphasize accessing how reliable the information is. There should be sufficient evidence to back the author's claims. Evidence can include findings, notes, or any other supporting facts. Check for the cited sources and evaluate their merit. You may also look for prejudices or biases, if any, in the article. The information served should be devoid of plagiarism. And also, the content in the source should be free of spelling, grammar, or any typographical errors.

Purpose - Identify the very purpose of the information. Identification of the purpose of the sources essentially helps the readers to understand whether the information they are looking for is right for their research work.  You may also look for evidence of any commercial, political, religious, or other motivations.

(Abhishek Kumar is a research scholar (Marketing) at Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. He can be contacted at pm1901@rgipt.ac.in.Sameeksha Madan is a UGC NET-JRF holder and a researcher. She can be contacted at samie2494@gmail.com)