Fake news is when a news is generated without any basis in reality. It comes in many forms like false government or official circulars, doctored videos, pictures etc. Another aspect of fake news is about timing which is used by misinforming public by reusing old pictures or videos which have the potential of escalating a situation of crisis.
Timing is everything in the spread of fake news. It breeds in times of crisis when people are desperate to know anything and everything about the current situation and with a lot of easily accessible information, it becomes difficult for one to decide what is true and what is not. Here the word “infodemic” comes into play. We can understand infodemic with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. From fake official circulars to rumors, the misinformation in public about Covid-19 has hit no less than the pandemic itself. 600 people died in Iran from drinking neat alcohol after a rumor was spread that it was a ‘cure’ for Coronavirus. Today, the fake news is making real news. Moreover, online criminals have seized this opportunity by deceptively naming websites for unleashing floods of spam ads and malware campaigns. In March only, at least 100,000 new website names were registered using terms like “covid,” “corona” and “virus”, according to a report by ICANN.
Technology is a main tool for dissemination of information and news. With internet, the circulation of ideas and information has drastically changed. Where these changes are mostly for the better, it has also caused some problems. With easy to access technology and an ocean of content available on the internet today, the quality-control and fact-checking is not an easy job to do. This has resulted in a mixture of fake and genuine content on a the most influential technology that is social media. Moreover, technological advancements have led to the creation of videos and pictures that don’t look doctored which has made it impossible to distinguish what’s real and what’s fake.
Where technology acts as an enabler of fake news, it is also a potential tool to combat it. With technology we can improve information that is circulating. A combination of artificial intelligence and human efforts can produce the effects of editing and quality control used in traditional media. For example: WhatsApp is working on a feature that would allow users to verify forwarded messages on phones as well on WhatsApp web. Though not all the messages can be verified on the app, only the ones that are frequently forwarded will be verified.
Indian Government and individual bodies are doing their best to curb the infodemic of fake news. Assam police has registered 52 cases, made 25 arrests and sent 110 for counselling for spreading fake news. A hoax busting team is organized under the voluntary pan-India effort by Indian Scientists’ Response to Covid-19. In situations like these we need to be alert, not alarmed. And in addition to maintain “social distancing”, we should also start practicing “social media distancing”.