In every family or friend group, there is at least one person that is always sharing Facebook posts, Tweets, WhatsApp chains or sketchy articles that never fail to leave you worried, alarmed or angry at something. From words that never came out of Nikita Khrushchev’s mouth to a miraculous substance to fight diseases, fake news are everywhere. We, as a society, have been dealing with misinformation for centuries now and it has only escalated with the easy access to internet and social media, not to mention how the pandemic has further sparked their spread.
We have been warned about the danger of these false stories time and time again, but how come we are still so eager to believe these claims and defend them so ardently? Now with as many stories and conspiracy theories about Covid-19, their consequences are visible to everyone. To give an example, my 79-year-old grandmother refuses to take the vaccine because she believes that all of this is a communist plot orchestrated by a hedge fund tycoon. In this point is where we can see how learning about news literacy, which according to the News Literacy Project is: “the ability to determine the credibility of news and other content, to identify different types of information, […] to determine what to trust, share and act on”, could be a game changer to face this issue.
It is true that governments, media and NGOs are doing their part to contribute to the solution but looking at the "history" of fake news, it may give us a full panorama. According to the University of California Santa Barbara Center for Information, Technology & Society (CITS), the problematic with misleading information has haunted us from as early as 1755 when the Catholic church gave a deceptive explanation to a Lisbon earthquake. But phony stories came into play more prominently after The New York Sun printed one in 1835 to increase circulation and there are plenty of examples throughout history, not only in the media but also with political leaders. However, as technology advances, so has the way in which fake news have spread and the individuals behind them.
Currently newspapers are not the ones taking part in this dynamic - recently we have seen cases where the responsible were people wanting to make profit or to spread their radical ideology in a satirical way. Generating them is insanely easy, the NPO Common Sense Media warns that online tools like a customisable birthday card can be used to generate a fake news story, furthermore the CITS lists five steps that go into creating them: developing a site that resembles a trusted source as much as possible, stealing content, using advertising, spreading through social media and repeating the process.
So, why do we fall for them? According to Dr. Christopher Dwyer, researcher at the National University of Ireland, Galway, 7 reasons explain it: confirmation bias (trusting information that confirms or aligns with our current beliefs), lack of credibility evaluation, attention and impatience, cognitive laziness, emotions targeting, reiteration (the more we see or hear information, the more we believe them) and social pressure.
With this background, it is easier to understand what the panorama looks like and how to act against the problem. Some private companies are already taking action. For instance, Twitter and Facebook notice their users when a media may contain deceiving information. They sometimes block them - as seen when Donald Trump’s tweets were labeled as ‘potentially misleading’. Nonetheless, the former US President is not the only one known to share these kind of dubious allegations. Taking Colombia as an example, a quick search on Twitter will show you politicians from both sides of our political spectrum constantly share false statements with their followers that often ends up in unnecessary social media fights and or even national headlines.
On many occasions right-wing senator María Fernanda Cabal has shared misleading information about a number of things. With the national protests of November 2019, she tweeted a photo that contained the faces of some youtubers and accusing them of working with the extinct FARC - the youtubers raised their voices denying their involvement (most of them do not even live in Colombia) and the senator later deleted the tweet. On the other hand, left-wing leader Gustavo Petro shared an image allegedly of Colombia’s indigenous reservations walking through a road with the intention of speaking to the President, but the image did not even match with the country’s roads.
These are just two examples of how fake news and affirmations are handled and spread in the Latin American country. To counter this, many initiatives have emerged, from fact-checking platforms to alliances between different media companies to deny such stories. The most famous ones being Colombia Check and the ‘Detector’ from the independent news site La Silla Vacía. A more recent service called Vera - an alliance between different national radio stations – has been established in order to check stories concerning Covid-19.
In Colombia, news literacy is scarce because we are not prompted to learn about the dangers of misinformation. It is only when the content is verified by the media that we realise we may have shared something false. With the way our attention span works, a head’s up or a manual might not be the way to go. If a person learns about news literacy and shares what they have learnt, it could have a domino effect and inform others, which would be ideal.
Worldwide, the situation is similar to Colombia’s. In some cases, fake news have even caused the death of a person like we saw in India in 2018, and while these platforms and projects are a great advancement towards the fight against misinformation, it still is not enough. It is not only governments' job but people's - as individuals there is much we can do, from learning to sharing with others and fact-checking ourselves. The takeaway from what we have seen in these cases and all the other theories that have appeared during last year, is that it is also our task to be responsible in the way we consume and spread information. It is in our nature to question everything, even what we believe to be true.
Written by Andrea Jaramillo Caro
Andrea Jaramillo Caro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.