Social media networks and messaging apps, for all their plus points, are the catalysts for fake news – the real kind of fake news, not the Trumpian kind. Some vague efforts have been made to tackle an admittedly monstrous and unprecedented problem, but as a grim tale about WhatsApp has highlighted, the war on viral lies can lead to casualties.
The New York Times recently explained that, in India, false rumors regarding child abductions spread both easily and quickly. This has led to multiple murders – many conducted by mobs – in recent times, and many of the original fake news stories that trigger them are being sent over WhatsApp.
As reported by the Guardian, at least 20 people have been lynched in the country in the last two months as a result of such unfounded rumors.
The Facebook-owned messaging service will now restrict people to being able to forward messages to just 20 people in an attempt to stop fake news from spreading. Gizmodo have spotted that, in India, the cap is set even lower, at just five people. This, of course, doesn’t mean you can’t communicate the news in others ways – by taking a screenshot or typing it out yourself anew, say.
The (at present, temporary) move was prompted by a Channel 4 news report, which revealed through undercover filming that the service’s moderators were contravening Facebook’s own policies. It’s unclear, though, whether the move will ultimately prove to be effective.
Fake news is horrifically complex; it’s an end-of-video game boss with several dangerous attack styles but without the traditional weak point. Studies are only just revealing the extent to how it spreads and how it’s resistant to correction.
It’s becoming clear that willful ignorance and intentional deceptions are like diseases, for which the antibiotics of factual information are increasingly ineffective.
Fake news spreads far more quickly and further on social media than genuine information. Anti-vaxxers suffer from a psychological effect that means it’s not enough to show them the truth, you need to take down their overconfidence in their own opinions first.
Misrepresenting or otherwise popularizing fake science, too, comes at a cost: Unfounded rumors of impending disasters or medically induced conditions spread across the web like a viral infection, sometimes dramatically altering people’s lives for the worse. At a minimum, it puts scientific endeavors in a bad light, as fake news for other reporting often leads to a lower public trust in journalism in general.
As these examples reported in parts of India have shown, fake news can directly lead to killings, too. Unfortunately, it’s 2018: The most powerful people in the world are often engaged in spreading fake news, either to frighten people for economic gain or to game the balance of political power. Fake news isn't going away anytime soon.