Living in a post-truth world

December 28, 2019

Email

IN an era when misinformation is readily available, especially over the internet, trust in the news sources is probably the lowest it has ever been. Not long ago, a video of two engineering students jumping off the balcony went viral on the social media. It was shared more than 6000 times on Facebook and was trending for one whole week. The video was traumatising enough to change the decision of a prospective student willing to seek an admission to the institution. Upon delving deeper into the video, it was found to be a hoax, made by a group of students for their class project.

The anecdote is both troublesome and intriguing. How a seemingly innocent class project was picked up by some Facebook pages and shared without context as ‘news’ that ended up shaping the perception of teenagers regarding the pressure of education in that institution. There are millions of people who are being affected by this pandemic that we can generalise as ‘fake news’.

Pakistan ranks 68th out of 86 countries in digital literacy as listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2018 despite gaining rapidly on the internet penetration spectrum. This is a perfect recipe for disaster as the combination of increasing internet penetration and poor digital literacy translates into misinformed populace that is unable to discern actual facts from a plethora of clickbait articles, and hoaxes circulating on the internet.

Unfortunately, in a country where politicians are unable to discern between animation and real-life footage, it is unfair to expect from the masses who are not privileged enough to invest in making themselves digitally literate. Many of our countrymen are digitally savvy, but are not digitally literate and, hence, they fall prey to fake news.

Gone are the days when authenticity was associated with the source of the news. In contemporary times, when there is a plethora of television channels and infinite websites that are easily accessible – thanks to smartphones and the increased internet penetration – the sources are countless, and all of them appear to be authentic depending upon a person’s definition of authenticity.

In an age where ‘bloggers’ and ‘influencers’ armed with the element of ‘clickbait’ reign supreme, sifting news from fake news and information from disinformation takes some doing.

The influx of information accessible with such ease has made people lazy and an easy prey to disinformation as the normal ‘fact checker’ in our mind is diluted with an overflow of information from numerous channels, such as TV, social media, radio, SMS and WhatsApp messages.

In a country with burgeoning youth population, it is pivotal for parents, teachers and indeed the government to partner up in promoting digital literacy not just at the school, college and university levels, but at homes too.

According to YouTube, the most watched videos by female parents are cartoons and nursery rhymes, indicating that parents often give their smartphones or tablets to their little ones to keep them busy and entertained. With unmonitored and unsupervised exposure to the internet, these kids can venture into content that might be detrimental or false, and, hence, shape their worldview that stays in their minds.

The digital age has opened up new avenues of earnings. Back in the days, medicine and engineering used to be the top career choices for every teen growing up. In recent times, however, new ‘professions’ like blogger, vlogger, youtuber, and influencer etc. have entered their area of consideration.

These new professions are more rewarding as they offer quick ways of earning money online, and require nothing but a basic camera, social media account, and an ability to create original, attention-grabbing content. While there is no harm in pursuing this line of profession, the overall impact this has had on the digital landscape is immense.

Many influencers nowadays are propagating questionable and downright controversial views on social media. They create carefully curated content to get as many views as possible on their websites/videos/blogs so they can make money based on the overall traffic on their web properties.

In order to sustain this, they require a steady stream of fresh content that they repurpose and repackage by adding spice via clickbait thumbnails on the video or sensationalising the content piece by inserting clickbait titles. This practice is fairly common as a simple search on YouTube about any recent incident will reveal countless versions of the story from countless channels; each sounding convincing.

While there is no particular way to escape this menace, there are some basic markers that indicate when a particular news item might be a hoax or not credible.

Firstly, the origin of the content would be from a web address that sounds fairly identical to authentic sources, but would end mostly with ‘.co’, ‘.tk’ etc. with no definite author.

Secondly, the content would be followed by too many obtrusive advertisements, compelling a viewer to click on them.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the editorial quality of the content would be poor. This would be evident from usage of too many words in capital letters and usage of the words ‘unbelievable’, ‘epic’, and ‘amazing’ in their clickbait caption to lure a user onto the content.

In addition to the obvious signs, it is also important to cross-check any news item from multiple sources before sharing it or forwarding it to others. Having basic research skills can work as a substitute for general knowledge in this age, and is an indispensable skill that many people lack.

While the government and private institutions are playing their part to increase digital literacy, it is the responsibility of the more educated class to drive this agenda of digital literacy across the socio-economic spectrum of our country, and raise awareness across different platforms.

The next time your driver shares a video about how Neil Armstrong said ‘Allah-O-Akbar’ when he first landed on the moon, make sure you confront him about his sources. Or, else, keep sliding down that slippery slope of ‘fake news’. The choice is yours.