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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Interrogating Fake News and the Post Factual Era

When Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, one of the movies in his iconic Apu Triology was released, it faced a lot of criticism at home for showcasing India’s poverty. Responding to the criticism, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister had said – “What is wrong about showcasing India’s poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it?”

The question posed by Pandit Nehru is relevant not only domestically, but on a global scenario today, when sensitivity to facts is on a decline in a “post-factual” world. The decision by voters in the United Kingdom to vote in favor of Brexit and those in the United States in favor of Donald Trump, in-spite of overwhelming evidence detailing the ill-advisability of such a move, signals a worrying trend for the future of the information age.

However, this essay must begin by interrogating the root cause in the decline of credibility of facts – the decline of the credibility of traditional news media outlets themselves.

Credibility of Traditional Media Outlets

With rapidly advancing information technology, the nature of mass media itself has undergone a complete change. In India alone, 240 million people own a smart phone, while 500 million own a feature phone. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMI), 370 million people are using the internet in our country, the majority through their smart phones. Globally, the numbers are even higher.

Access to the internet and proliferation of social media platforms has meant that today, each and every one is a content generator. This means that when each and everyone with a smart phone and an opinion begins to publish and air their biases, not necessarily with supporting evidence, views overwhelm the news itself. In such a scenario, traditional media outlets are seen less as a “reliable source” and more as a part of the “establishment”.

As a result, there has been a rise of the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ which has filled the void left behind by the declining credibility of these traditional media outlets.

What is Fake News?

Publishing and circulating misleading and factually incorrect information deliberately for one’s own gain is known as ‘fake news’. While the rise of this phenomenon has come at the cost of the credibility of facts, it has also helped in legitimizing hate speech towards specific communities and reducing their participation in mainstream discourse by demoralizing and marginalizing them.

Fake news is built upon ‘confirmation bias’ – which is the tendency of online information consumers to subscribe to the viewpoint which confirms their previously help beliefs. The phenomenon started with fringe online portals which peddled bizarre conspiracy theories taking advantage of this confirmation bias to drive more ‘clicks’ to their platforms and hence generate more revenue. Soon, it had repercussions far beyond what was initially imagined.

The Unique Selling Point (USP) of social media and ‘app’ based services – real time transmission of information – which made them so popular in the first place, contributed hugely to the rise of fake news as the impact of such false information was also in real time. In a recent survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 2/3rd of the Americans surveyed admitted that ‘fake news’ added to a ‘lot of confusion’ regarding the recently concluded election process.

Alarm bells have been ringing in Europe where elections are to take place in various countries. Germany has warned Facebook of a 500,000 Euro fine if it fails to control the dissemination of fake news and an Italian regulator has directed the European Union to establish an agency for the same.

Dangers in a ‘Post-Factual’ Era

When the credibility of facts based on evidence is exhausted, people tend to turn to their political leadership in their quest for ‘truth’. This provides for a perfect opportunity for the rise of authoritarian/ dictatorial regimes.

In a post-factual era, censorship and curbs on freedom of expression are a likely scenario as attempt to quell every reasonable criticism of the authorities is made. Additionally, news is replaced by propaganda to keep the support of people for the regime at an all time high. It is probably concerns like these that have pushed the sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” through the roof.

Finally, the most pressing danger which can be caused by an authoritarian regime in a ‘post-factual’ era is the neglect of issues of critical and immediate concern such as climate change. By the time responsible leadership takes cognizance of these issues, it might just be too late.

Conclusion – Restoring the Credibility of Facts

To combat the dangers of authoritarian regimes in a post-factual era as well as the dangers of ‘fake news’, the answer is not censorship – it is more speech. A concerted effort by governments, social media portals, traditional media outlets and most importantly, by concerned citizens themselves, to rebut fake news in real time in order to minimize its spread and impact is necessary.

The dawn of a post-factual era also underscores the importance of independent fact-checkers as well as human editors to combat the political tool of ‘alternative facts’, which can end up causing long lasting damage to the credibility of the system of government as well as the continuity of its policy objectives. Programs like Escape Your Bubble, which expose online consumers of information to news outside their bubble in order to counter their confirmation bias are also the need of the hour.

Last but not the least; global consultations between all relevant stakeholders are required to decide upon the mechanisms to be adopted by social media outlets to filter fake news.

Only through concerted efforts and joint action, can the credibility of facts be restored so that they are not ignored by the general public while exercising their franchise and taking decisions which will impact the future of generations to come.