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India Polls: ‘All-Time High’ Fake News Storm Hits Millions

The country has 366 million Internet subscribers in urban locations and 194 million in rural areas

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India Polls, Fake News, Millions
Reaching out to the old people, who are newly getting introduced to smartphones and social media is a challenge. Pixabay

Veena Arora, a retired school principal in a small town of Uttar Pradesh, decided to use a smartphone in November last year for the first time at the cajoling of her children so that the family could stay together online even though they live in different cities.

In no time, she joined WhatsApp and started getting updates from family, relatives and friends. Then started the flood of forwarded messages from people in her contact list.

These forwards, many of which contained fake news, surged during the election time. Arora had no idea that these could be propaganda material. She became aware of the problem only after one of her sons alerted her about a fake political message she had forwarded.

“I never knew how a post could be fake or bogus. Photoshopped? I could never figure out if the message loaded with political information was right or wrong. For me, it was just information, which I kept sharing with friends and family members,” Arora told IANS.

India Polls, Fake News, Millions
These forwards, many of which contained fake news, surged during the election time. Pixabay

Arora is among an estimated 300 million users — mostly first-time smartphone users, from the smaller towns and rural areas with no prior digital experience — who are particularly vulnerable to sharing fake information on social media platforms.

“The biggest challenge to fighting fake new is that over 300 million of the 550 million smartphone and broadband users in the country are low on literacy and digital literacy and are especially gullible,” leading tech policy and media consultant Prasanto K. Roy told IANS.

“For them, we need prominent messaging and public education on the dangers — that fake news kills,” Roy emphasised.

The country has 366 million Internet subscribers in urban locations and 194 million in rural areas, says the latest TRAI report.

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The “ICUBETM 2018” report from market research firm Kantar IMRB said that the number of Internet users in the country will reach 627 million by the end of 2019.

According to Govindraj Ethiraj, Founder – BOOM, which has collaborated with Facebook, Google and Twitter, among others, to fight misinformation, educating new social media users about the dangers of fake news is a major challenge.

“Although millennials are no less vulnerable to fake news, they could be taught about its dangers through the introduction of education programmes in schools or advertisements. Reaching out to the old people, who are newly getting introduced to smartphones and social media is a greater challenge,” Ethiraj told IANS.

He, however, noted that once awareness increases among the general population, old people could also be educated.

India Polls, Fake News, Millions
Mostly first-time smartphone users, from the smaller towns and rural areas with no prior digital experience — are particularly vulnerable to sharing fake information on social media platforms. Pixabay

“Many times, children teach their grandparents a lot of things,” Ethiraj said, while adding that fighting fake news is a daunting challenge.

“The spread of fake news reached an all-time high in the run up to the 2019 general election, despite social media platforms fighting them back by combining people (fact checkers) and technology,” Ethiraj added.

But this “fight back” has warned the organised fake news peddlers as they run the risk of getting exposed by fact checkers.

The number of eligible voters in the Lok Sabha elections this year was around 900 million. Both Facebook and WhatsApp have nearly 300 million users each in India.

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Facing flak from different quarters for the spread of misinformation on its platform that were linked to dozens of lynching cases in India last year, Facebook-owned WhatsApp also introduced advertisement education programme in over 10 languages.

All these efforts, however, had only limited success in curbing spread of disinformation during this election season.

“Fake news has been a primary and significant driver of sentiment and passion through this election,” Roy said.

“Even now, on the eve of the counting day, fake news is being seeded by political influencers on Twitter (for example, Bollywood actress Payal Rohatgi saying Khan Market in Delhi is named after a Mughal invader and must be renamed Valmiki Market) and instantly being circulated on WhatsApp,” he added.

India Polls, Fake News, Millions
over 300 million of the 550 million smartphone and broadband users in the country are low on literacy and digital literacy. Pixabay

A part of the problem is that for many of the social media platforms India is a bigger market than their “home” market, said Ethiraj.

“These products were probably not originally designed to deal with the diversity and vastness of the India market, but they are now trying to adapt to the Indian situation and deal with the unique challenges that the country poses,” he said. (IANS)

Next Story

Fake News Spreads Like Wildfire On Social Media

Misinformation can stoke political polarisation and undermine democracy

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Fake news on social media
The researchers noted that efforts to curtail misinformation typically focus on helping people distinguish fact from fiction. Pixabay

Researchers, including one of Indian-origin, have found that people who repeatedly encounter a fake news item may feel less unethical about sharing it on social media, even when they don’t believe the information, according to a new study.

In a series of experiments involving more than 2,500 people, the study published in the journal Psychological Science, found that seeing a fake headline just once leads individuals to temper their disapproval of the misinformation when they see it a second, third, or fourth time.

“The findings have important implications for policymakers and social media companies trying to curb the spread of misinformation online,” said study researcher Daniel A. Effron from the London Business School.

“We suggest that efforts to fight misinformation should consider how people judge the morality of spreading it, not just whether they believe it,” Effron added.

Across five experiments, Effron and researcher Medha Raj asked online survey participants to rate how unethical or acceptable they thought it would be to publish a fake headline, and how likely they would be to “like”, share, and block or unfollow the person who posted it.

As they expected, the researchers found that participants rated headlines they had seen more than once as less unethical to publish than headlines they were shown for the first time.

Fake news
Facebook Adds New Measures to Enforce Targeting Restrictions on Potentially Discriminatory Ad Types. Pixabay

Participants also said they were more likely to ‘like’ and share a previously seen headline and less likely to block or unfollow the person who posted it.

What’s more, they did not rate the previously seen headline as significantly more accurate than the new ones, the researchers said.

The researchers noted that efforts to curtail misinformation typically focus on helping people distinguish fact from fiction.

Facebook, for example, has tried informing users when they try to share news that fact-checkers have flagged as false.

But such strategies may fail if users feel more comfortable sharing misinformation they know is fake when they have seen it before.

The researchers theorise that repeating misinformation lends it a ‘ring of truthfulness’ that can increase people’s tendency to give it a moral pass, regardless of whether they believe it.

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“The results should be of interest to citizens of contemporary democracies,” Effron said.

“Misinformation can stoke political polarisation and undermine democracy, so it is important for people to understand when and why it spreads,” Effron added. (IANS)