The Covid-19 pandemic shed light on more than just the healthcare sector of India. It also highlighted how social media, when used for all the right reasons, can arrange beds and medicines across the country, and when exploited, can cause extreme trust issues.
With every aspect of our social being getting morphed into its virtual alternative, social media is not only harping on our privacy but also feeding off of our addiction to the platforms for “news.” A study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research 2021 highlights patterns of content consumption among internet users in India during the pandemic. According to the study, 30% of Indians referred to WhatsApp as one of the primary sources for Covid-19 information. In comparison, less than 50% of this information was verified or fact-checked by the individuals before forwarding. Therefore, what constitutes Covid-19 information through these platforms is as reliable as the wandering space of human imagination!
Case in point, the World Health Organisation had to release an official statement clarifying that no warning had been issued regarding the number of deaths due to Covid-19 in India, in response to a viral video stating otherwise.
But why is fact-checking so important?
The circulation of fake news can have serious implications on national security, human health, privacy, democracy, and even the mental health of those involved. The infamous incident of a well-known English news channel in India, reading names of 30 dead Chinese soldiers post the Galwan-clash last year, was sourced from a WhatsApp forward. The list, read out on a prime-time slot, not only risked circulating misinformation, but also put national security and India’s bilateral relations with China on edge.
Misinformation post the Tablighi-Jamaat congregation in Delhi in the wake of a nation-wide lockdown, was another prime example of how words, stories and situations can be manipulated and vilify communities without any actual proof. It was only after the Supreme Court intervention requesting the Government to take steps and curb the spread of fake news, that the blame-game was put to rest.
Another piece of misinformation doing rounds during the first phase of the lockdown was concerned with egg/poultry consumption. A Facebook post with unverified information claimed a chicken in Bangalore had been infected with Covid-19. Similar information was circulated across Mumbai about a chicken broiler infected with the virus. This false information, linking the virus infection with consumption of chicken or eggs, was circulated along with fake images of chickens with ‘Ranikhet’ disease and not Covid-19. Source? a social media platform. Impact? The industry took the brunt of losing out on ₹13 billion, merely 3 weeks after the speculation.
One ignorant WhatsApp forward not only spreads misinformation to a large group of receivers simultaneously, but also dilutes and/or exaggerates the brevity of the situation at hand and digresses the readers from the primary issue itself.
How can you fact-check your information before sharing it with other?
We can stop this chain of forwarding messages and take the responsibility to verify our sources before we thump our chest and go out of our way to defend a rumor, especially within our social circles.
First, understand the difference between fake news, misinformation, and disinformation.
- Fake news: is the false information crafted in and around the mainstream conversation with no particular intention in place
- Misinformation: is the false information in-circulation with no harmful intention as its primary objective
- Disinformation: false information drafted to manipulate the narrative with an intention to cause harm
While both misinformation and disinformation can be intentional, it is generally categorised on the basis of the primary investigation by the concerned officials.
Second, use these terminologies as per the context and not what seems comfortable since that will only fuel an already flammable situation. This is to avoid any pre-existing bias towards the news subject or conversation that can influence the audience and send a wrong message, like the Tablighi Jamaat case – where disinformation was spread against a particular community to fuel pre-existing prejudices.
Third, check your sources before you intend to share any piece of information on your favorite groups or your social media channels – this holds for both Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 related information. In case of any doubt, don’t share the news – nothing will do more harm than spreading false information.
Fourth, refer to fact-checking platforms like Logically.ai for vetting misinformation and disinformation before sharing what seems worth passing in your immediate circle.
Logically.ai, founded by Lyric Jain in 2016 – involves technological aides like Artificial Intelligence and IFCN-accredited human fact-checkers and investigators to identify and act as gatekeepers to prevent the spread of false information. The organization won AatmaNirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge – in the news category, launched by the Indian Government in 2020.
Lastly, stay aware. Technology is catching up with us by the hour, and the only thing keeping us safe between the use of jargon and concerns of privacy, is staying aware and verifying our news sources before sharing.
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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.