“Oh my gosh! Is this really true?”
“This is unbelievable!”
“Did he (or she) really say this?”
Fake News and How to Spot It.
These thoughts may have crossed your mind when reading a certain article or post, or on coming across certain pictures or while watching videos on social media platforms or, even at times, on mainline news portals. We are shocked, disturbed and confused. We really don’t know what to believe! Could it be real? Or, could it be fake?
Fake news has been in existence for a very long time and has always been clothed with the garment of pseudo-authenticity with an underlying agenda. With the advent of the digital age and social media, fake news has taken on a life of its own as it spreads even more rapidly. This is why the ability to expose a fake is so very essential today.
So, what is ‘Fake News’? Fake news has rapidly become a catch-all term to discredit all kinds of stories. It can be defined as those news stories that are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Sometimes these stories may be propaganda that is intentionally designed to mislead the reader or may be designed as “click bait” written for economic incentives (the writer profits from the number of people who click on the story). In recent years, fake news stories have proliferated via social media, in part because they are so easily and quickly shared online and because, somewhere along the line, it has been forwarded by someone you know and trust.
How, then, do we decipher what is true and what is false, and arrest the spread of fake news?
First, let us situate ourselves: India, as a country, has participated and contributed to the digital revolution in a very big way. More and more people are connected via their smart phones and the digital revolution has swept through both urban and rural areas – the length and breadth of our country. Standing at the crossroads as we face the future, we seem to be leaving democracy behind. It would be pertinent to list here the four pillars of the democratic state: the Judiciary, Executive, Legislature and Media, where media ensures transparency in the working of the first three.
Media has the power to make us aware of various social, political and economic activities around us. It is expected to be the mirror which shows us the bare truth and harsh realities of life. Unfortunately, media seems to have abandoned this role.
We, therefore, find ourselves at a defining moment in history. Most mainline media houses deal with more fiction than fact; they flash allegations as breaking news and instead of informing the viewer, they force their opinions on us rather than let the facts speak for themselves. They have failed in their journalistic responsibility of being watchdogs of the nation and have turned themselves into being spokespersons for the governments and government agencies.
Social media, initially, provided people with an alternative means for debunking myths and communicating the truth, however, political parties have understood the clout that digital media holds and have been quick to seize the opportunity to propagate their agenda to the masses. Certainly, one particular party used social media very effectively in the last election. Political parties have established IT cells that propagate the ideology of their respective parties and selectively use data to emphasise their point. Once again, these IT cells pass on their ideology as news, and their position as the truth, thus perpetuating fake news or, if you prefer, altered reality.
And this is where we enter the picture.
Pope Francis has recognised the need of the hour and in his message for World Communication Day,  he invites us to take a stand for the truth. In his message entitled ‘The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace’, he calls each one of us to fight fake news with the truth. The Holy Father recalls that fake news is not a new phenomenon: “This was the strategy employed by the “crafty serpent” in the Book of Genesis, who, at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news!”
Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to be ‘truth seekers’ and he emphasises that, “None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods.” So, let us look at ways we can spot fake news particularly on WhatsApp which is the single largest conduit of fake news. WhatsApp forwards and images that are Photo-shopped have been known to create disturbances in civil society for which we, too, are responsible. So very often we forward messages we receive and we state ‘forwarded as received’. This statement does not absolve us of our responsibility to verify the facts of the communication before forwarding.
Here’s what you need to do as a responsible digital citizen:
1. If a message is doing the rounds without a reference point (a link to a website, news portal or Facebook page) then 99% of the time it is false. If it’s too good to be true, exaggerated, sensational, provocative then it’s in all likelihood created for that purpose.
2. To check the validity of the message, take the keywords of the message and do a Google search. For images, use a reverse image search by dragging the image you wish to verify into the camera icon of the Google search bar and clicking on the link that says similar images. It isn’t too difficult and you need to make use of your smart phone’s capabilities to keep you safe from fake news!
3. If links are provided then check the links and investigate the site, its mission and its contact information.
4. Read beyond the headline. If the headline is outrageous it would imply that this is done in an effort to get more clicks. Reading beyond will take you to the whole story.
5. Check the Author. It’s important to check the credibility of the author. Understand the author’s leanings and bias.
6. Check the Supporting Sources. At times, authors make statements without substantiating them with facts. Determine if the information provided in the story is supported by evidence (this means using a search engine to check the content). Just because an author says so does not make that true.
7. Always check the date on the link provided. Often, old news articles do the rounds, sometimes with political motivation. Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they are relevant to current events.
8. Use your own judgment and ask yourself if you consider the information received is viable. Often, stupid news stories do the rounds as if they are the truth (e.g. the Pope changing the Bible or Pope Francis resigns). If the post is too outlandish, it most likely is a satire. Research the site and the ‘about us’ section which will clearly explain what kind of information goes on the site.
9. Keep your biases in check. Often, fake news does the rounds because we are only too ready to share damaging news of a person we dislike or share great news of someone we like without researching for the truth.
10. Ask an expert. There are many fact-checking websites that act as tools to deal with fake news. Some of them are: hoax-slayer, boomlive, altnews and snopes.
While the internet offers us so many possibilities for gaining information, it is important for us to understand the responsibility that comes with our faith. Pope Francis makes a point in his message for World Communications Day, ‘The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen, people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge; people who are attracted by goodness and take responsibility for how they use language.’
As rational, thinking persons, we need to take time to understand the text and sub-text of what is being communicated. We need to be smarter at recognising and combating outright fabrication. And, as Catholics, we need to stand up for the truth. That is who we are.
Fr. Nigel Barrett is a diocesan priest with Archdiocese of Bombay serving in Holy Name Cathedral. He has done his doctorate in communication from Trinity college and currently heads Archdiocese of Bombay Catholic Communication Centre which is the media hub of the Archdiocese. His aim is to spread the faith through the digital space.
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