Rise of fake news and echo chambers | Opinion
In 2009, life was simple.
You would get news from the newspaper or its online avatar, the political buzz from television channels or your cousin who knows someone who knows someone in the local MP’s office, and “Good Morning” or “Good Night” greetings over SMS on your phone. If there was something important, it had to come from a top media house, otherwise you risked getting snubbed by your grandfather at the dinner table. Finding out the national anthem wasn’t voted the best in the world was a moment of embarrassment.
A decade later, everything has gone wrong. Credible sources of information appear to hold little value anymore as people are buried under an avalanche of information – most of it generated by spam bots, skilful manipulation algorithms, or groups people working at the behest of political parties – and facts are lost in a sea of anonymous forwarded messages, and overnight mushrooming of “news channels” and “news websites” that end up confirming biases.
As a result, the biases and impulses that would earlier be shared in whispers in locker rooms have now grown into the deafening roar of street rallies, mob violence and family WhatsApp groups. This has made the world a morass of anti-immigrant sentiment, nativist attitudes and hostility for anyone who looks, feels or talks different.
This larger narrative runs across the world, including places where it would once be considered improbable - from Brazil to the US and from the UK to India.
More insidious has been the slow seepage of bias and hate into every strata of society – classmates openly spewing hate on alumni groups, neighbourhoods refusing to rent houses to people of certain communities -- that fuelled white nationalist rallies in the US and mob lynchings in India. This has left minorities on tenterhooks, anxious that they may become second-class citizens.
How did we get here?
The initial sign was the dismantling hierarchy of news. It was conventionally accepted the more important a piece of news was, the more trusted the source needed to be. No more. Somewhere in the early 2010s, people’s trust in technology morphed into their trust of anything that their device threw at them. With more news outlets cropping up and more people coming onto the internet grid than ever, people were flooded with catchy headlines, and they latched onto the one that confirmed their bias.
This was aided by two conflicting and simultaneous events.
The first was the growing ubiquity of the smartphone that enmeshed itself into every hour of every day of our life. As phones became indispensible, so did the “facts” it flashed. The second was, ironically, the rising democratisation of internet, which took away the entry barriers to the news business and ensured that two men in a corner room could churn out enough “content” to keep millions buzzing.
As the bubble grew, we entered the second phase: the creation of echo chambers. Real-time mining of personalised data – what you like to watch, read, eat, order – enabled specific targeting of advertising, news and information. This was great news for e-commerce but bad news for facts.
On social media, conversations were increasingly walled off and you could only see updates and thoughts of people whose ideology you broadly agreed with – and therefore got idea whether your outlook was close to reality. The shock and unpredicted victory of Donald Trump in the US was the biggest testament that even engaged commentators had no idea that vast numbers of people didn’t agree with their ideas. The end of privacy had also ended fact-based argument.
And thus we entered the final phase: The age of disinformation, where it was impossible to distinguish myths from facts, where fake news mushroomed faster than any fact-checks, where ordinary people struggled to sift through often contradictory propaganda masquerading as news. This was weaponised by political parties, leaders, and wily nations alike.
So is there no hope? After all, this decade also birthed the still-nascent movement to safeguard personal data and privacy and various civil society groups were able to deftly use the internet to put out information and organise protests. But the real frontier is the fight against tribal hate and the sowing of bias in friends, neighbours and family. The outcome of that struggle may determine the trajectory of the next decade.