Fighting fake news is our collective responsibility
A villager in Uttar Pradesh bought a Chinese smartphone and went home excited with his new purchase. A few hours later, he returned to the shop, hassled, “My phone is not working.” “What’s wrong?” the shopkeeper asked. “There’s no WhatsApp. I’ve been cheated,” he responded, thinking WhatsApp comes pre-installed.
People often ask what use is technology to the poor when they don’t have enough money to afford two good meals a day. However, they don’t realise that people adopt technology easily and well as long as they are shown its contextual relevance.
The Internet is not just enabling people to fight information poverty but is also enabling them to spread awareness, mobilise communities, raise debates and challenge stereotypes. It’s also amazing how the mobile phone has been able to bridge the gap between citizens and governance, society and social issues, victims and aid providers, and service seeker and service providers, among others. One no longer needs to write a letter, post it and wait for days to be delivered before the receiver can write a response and post it back to the original sender, spanning anywhere from days to months for the exchange.
This is because the phone has the power to connect and organise individuals and communities to disseminate information in real time and low cost. The fact that WhatsApp has over 200 million users — across social, economic and geographic barriers — in India alone is a testimony to this.
Roughly 65 billion messages are sent every day and more than two billion minutes of voice and video calls are made on the messaging platform on a daily basis globally. It would be silly to imagine that all 65 billion messages exchanged every day would be important, relevant, useful, verified or factual. In these exchange of messages — which no longer costs per text message — people are often exchanging unverified information, and not necessarily intentionally.
The Internet brings with itself the good, the bad and the ugly. The online world is also, in many ways, a reflection of the offline society. However, online conversations come with the advantage of not being restricted to a small group in physical proximity. Violence happened in the country even before the advent of social media and instant messaging platforms but it cannot be denied that social media, including over-the-top (OTT) messaging applications, gives people anonymity -- which often brings much scope for unaccountability.
However, can we blame the knife for a murder? Is it then fair to blame social media or messaging platforms alone for the problems of hate messaging, propaganda and misinformation?
Looking at the growing scenario of misinformation, we asked 3000-odd people in Tier II and Tier III cities across 11 states who they thought should be blamed. As many as 39% of the respondents said it is people using the technology who are responsible for promoting or curbing misinformation; 14% said it is the responsibility of the technology platforms. And 46% said one cannot blame the other but both need to share the blame.
If platforms are expected to make product changes to fight this problem, users are expected to question the incoming messages. What we are largely lacking is the ownership each one of us needs to take of what we’re sharing, especially when some media outlets are failing at fact-checking, debunking fake news and educating the masses.
Whether we accept it or not, fighting fake news is a longer process that involves education, awareness and socio-behavioural changes. It’s a collective responsibility that we have to acknowledge, without agenda or malice.
Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation
The views expressed are personal