Internet offers pathways of enhancing democratic participation, increased interconnectedness and access to knowledge and entertainment. However, uncritical use of digital platforms and uncritical consumption of digital content can impede achieving the very goals it promises. For example, Fake news is currently a serious threat to democracies worldwide.

Collins dictionary defines ‘Fake news’ as ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting’. While such sensational / false information dissemination must have been an age-old phenomenon, the progress achieved in communication through telecommunication and digital technologies has exacerbated the spread, depth and impact of fake news. However, some scholars are of the opinion that the term ‘fake news’  is a misnomer as it is not entirely representative of the misinformation ecosystem consisting of misleading content, satire or parody, imposter content, fabricated content, false connection, false context and  manipulated content. Here in this article, the term ‘fake news’  is used to indicate the entire misinformation ecosystem including  false social media content.

It is very easy for a sensational forwarded message to become viral and cause real world havoc, be it mass exodus of migrant laborers from Bangalore or mob lynching. While it would be naive to attribute blame of these events to fake news alone ignoring the underlying social, political and economic factors, it can’t be denied that spread of misinformation through Whatsapp, SMS messaging and Facebook plays a major role in inciting panic. Much has been written about how to identify fake news. However, we may not be able to put those techniques into practice unless we are aware of our biases and able to counter them.

Fake news and confirmation bias

The author and her colleagues used to conduct digital literacy sessions with a group of urban youth in Bangalore. A part of the curriculum dealt with ways of identifying fake news. We covered various tips such as verifying the source, verifying the date, reverse image search, checking with fake news busting services, etc. After multiple sessions, we conducted an assessment. One of the questions of the assessment consisted of a forwarded image that claimed that Kannada language was awarded the Guinness book of records certificate for being the oldest language. The youth was asked to verify the authenticity of this message.

Out of the 17 youth who attempted this question, 58.8% (10 youth) answered that the forwarded message was true without doing any fact checking. They argued that the forwarded message must be true because Kannada language has a rich history. We got the impression that the bias arising from the affinity towards Kannada, their mother tongue as well as the existing knowledge about Kannada’s rich history, stood in the way of fact checking despite being trained on verifying fake news. On the plus side, this incident gave us an opening to discuss various psychological tendencies that facilitate belief in fake news including confirmation bias.

Psychology today summarises confirmation bias as follows:
“Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea/concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true”

Unsurprisingly, digital humanities scholar Jason Ahler defines confirmation bias as ‘fake news’s best friend’. Most often, we fall prey to fake news due to a combination of confirmation bias and implicit bias. As psychologist David Braucher argues, due to our implicit bias, we tend to become friends with those who have the same political leaning as us, and as they share news that confirms our beliefs, this feedback loop gets entrenched, and we end up living in a bubble. Interestingly, in these bubbles we often tend to label news that contradict our political beliefs as fake news. Other two psychological tendencies that enable belief in fake news are cognitive dissonance (siding with what is comfortable rather than what is true) and motivated reasoning (scrutinising ideas more carefully if we don’t like them and scrutinising ideas less if we like them).

Unethical Technical Design

Another enabling factor for the spread of fake news is unethical technical design. To retain our attention, social media algorithms tend to give us more of what we like, thus giving them more time to mine data about us and also to show us more ads. If you liked or shared an article that claimed that ancient Indians possessed nuclear weapons, you are likely to see more such articles in your Facebook news feed and search results. Additionally, social media platforms keep us glued to them with likes and notifications. These are the results of conscious design choices based on behavioral economics built for profit maximization. Our well-being is secondary to these platforms.

Technologist Aviv Ovadya, argues that platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook prioritised clicks, likes shares and subsequent revenue generation through advertisements rather than quality of information. This strategy resulted in polarising and sensational information becoming more viral. Ovadya’s is one among the increasing calls for ethical technical design. However, due to widespread backlash, Tech companies have begun to fact check and label fake news. For example, Twitter recently labelled a tweet by Donald Trump as ‘manipulated media‘. However, it is questionable how effective these steps will be considering that 1) Not all posts are fact checked 2) Posts often go viral before they are taken down or labelled 3) These steps still do not address the fake news circulation via WhatsApp. While WhatsApp has restricted the number of times a user can forward a message,  the sheer magnitude of the fake news spread via WhatsApp groups and private messages is overwhelming.

Ovadya further worries that the pervasiveness of fake news can result in a scenario called ‘reality apathy’, where beset by a torrent of constant misinformation, people simply start to give up. This can result in people simply being indifferent to information – ‘everything is fake news; so why bother’ or increase polarisation -‘If everything is fake news, I might as well, believe what best suits me and decry other news as fake news’.

Surviving in the post-truth age

Now that the glorification of the information age has somewhat subsided, the age we are living in is increasingly referred to as post-truth age. Philosophers like Yuval Noah Harari would disagree and say that fake news is an ancient phenomenon as old as religion and humans have always lived in a post-truth world.

Whether we have always lived in a post-truth world or whether the post-truth age has recently begun in earnest, we need to think of ways to minimise impacts of misinformation on ourselves and our democracies. We need to become critical and conscious in our news consumption, be aware of our biases and the lure of filter bubbles.

Vineetha Venugopal works with a Bangalore based marine conservation organisation. Prior to that she worked with a Bangalore based digital justice organisation. She is interested in research and advocacy on commons – be it digital, forest or coastal.


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