Cheating, fraudulence, deception: these have been as old as the times. However, with the growth of social media like Google, Whatsapp and Facebook they have become smoother, sharper and more pervasive and assumed thousands of different garbs. Today a cheat, deceiver and fraud can reach millions or even tens of millions through the social media.
The omnibus term for cheating, deception and fraudulence in social media is fake news. Among the examples of fake news are ‘reports’ about pervasive sale of ‘plastic’ eggs, which have been circulated for the past few years through the social media and which hit us Goans through the Assembly recently – fortunately to be junked by findings of the food safety organizations at the central and state levels that the egg samples had normal constituents in them.
There are false ‘reports’ claiming to be authentic circulated about ‘magic cures’ of diseases and ailments. These ‘reports’ are obviously circulated through the social media by (obviously uncertified and unapproved) manufacturers of ‘medicines’ who even present before-and-after photographs of one or two ‘patients’. These manufacturers target people suffering from chronic diseases – such as cancer, diabetes, asthma – or problems such as obesity, dark skin, wrinkles due to ageing.
Such manufacturers were earlier using the traditional media such as newspapers to advertise their ‘wonder cures’ but now find the social media a far more cost effective way of reaching out millions. Not all who read about their ‘wonder cures’ fall for it, but assuming even one in a thousand does, the fraud has got thousands of buyers. Adding to that are manufacturers that claim to sell utensils, crockery, kitchen equipment and household goods such as bedsheets, curtains and drapery; some of them use not only the social media but also television channels to market and sell their products. These manufacturers have no accountability if the quality of the goods sold by them turns out to be bad. The people who buy their goods and get cheated do not take the trouble of taking the matter to the consumer court.
Then there is fake news about politicians. Filling the social media with dirty, defamatory and denigrating ‘news’ and ‘views’ about famous politicians has come to be known as trolling, which is done with the help of groups of people constantly engaged in fabricating lies and muck about them. There are morphed pictures and cartoons with false attributions of politicians. There are rumours spread through social media about the political parties as well.
The pervasiveness of fake news about political parties and politicians in the social media is poisoning our democracy which relies on the foundations of healthy debate and discussion. By taking precedence over factual news, fake news today threatens free speech. People are afraid to speak their minds on the social media because they are afraid that their free speech will be showered with loads of shrapnel and dung. Fake news is curtailing freedom of expression, which is the blood of democracy.
Social media platforms like Google, Whatsapp and Facebook have been recently jolted into action to curb fake news. All these years they have been indirectly colluding with the purveyors of fake news, pleading innocent on the ground that their platforms were spaces for free expression and if some people were misusing that space they could not be blamed. It was clear that their business model was based on the numbers.
If they wanted numbers they had to make sharing and forwarding quick and unlimited. In doing so, however, they did not care about their social responsibility. They did not care that they were helping wicked individuals, groups and organisations take full advantage of their spaces to sell spurious, harmful and unsafe products, to spread denigrating, damaging and depressing rumours about persons and organizations, to mislead people in a thousand other ways.
As there is not much hope of giant businesses in social media sector taking effective measures to stop spread of fake news – ‘If we do,’ they might say, ‘we will have to shut down our business’ – it is left to the individual social media user to separate fake news from factual news. Today the fake newsmongers create fake news sitting somewhere on the planet, and thousands and millions like, comment on and share it. Before one likes or shares a ‘piece of news,’ one should first check (as journalists do) whether the source (website) is credible and reliable. One should open the website and ‘feel’ its reliability by checking who is running it. The second check that needs to be made is whether any established and well-known newspaper or website has reported that ‘piece of news.’