Why we need to educate students to identify fake news

In the post-truth era, fake information can significantly impact individuals and society in various ways

February 24, 2024 12:46 pm | Updated 04:32 pm IST

Influenced by emotional appeals, many people frequently mistake misinformation and disinformation for genuine information. 

Influenced by emotional appeals, many people frequently mistake misinformation and disinformation for genuine information.  | Photo Credit: Freepik

A week ago, a friend sent me a WhatsApp forward about a politician, which I quickly discerned as fake. So, I asked him, “How authentic is this report? Has it been published in any reputable newspaper?” My inquiry prompted him to fact-check the message, revealing its fraudulent nature. During my own fact-checking process, I found a message on the fact-checking website Boom, which confirmed it as fake news. On the same day, I received the same forward from three others. Had I shared it with any groups, and had they in turn circulated it within their own networks, the message would have gained further traction, potentially becoming viral.

Recently, as part of an experiment, I forwarded a piece of fake information to a WhatsApp group. I was quite surprised when almost everyone in the group believed the information to be true and started commenting on it. Later, I had to send another message explaining that the intention of sending fake information was to know their reaction to it.

Fake news can be categorised as either disinformation — false information deliberately created to tarnish someone’s reputation or harm a specific group, organisation, or government — or misinformation or false information spread unintentionally. Those who spread disinformation do so with the intention of promoting toxic narratives and creating confusion and conflicts in society.

A month ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published a report, Report on Global Risks 2024, analysing 34 global risks including disinformation, extreme weather events, cybersecurity, armed conflict, inflation, and unemployment. According to the report, the risk that will cause the most harm in the short term (less than two years) is “spreading false information”. The report also identifies India as the top country for spreading misinformation. Disinformation spreads faster than information. A study conducted by researchers from MIT has revealed that “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, across all categories of information, often by an order of magnitude.”

Adverse effects

We currently live in a post-truth era, where objective facts wield diminishing influence in shaping public opinion compared to appeals to emotion and personal belief. Individuals, influenced by emotional appeals, frequently mistake misinformation and disinformation for genuine information. Post-truth politicians, journalists, and campaigners significantly contribute to this environment, ultimately moulding post-truth voters.

In this post-truth era, fake information can significantly impact individuals and society in various ways. False news has the potential to sway people’s decisions, alter their perceptions of politicians, celebrities, political parties, or organisations, and influence their behaviour, particularly during election periods.

Even electronic and media professionals with hidden agenda spread disinformation and misinformation. They present it in such a way that what they say is true. Even those who are good at critical thinking believe them to be true. Many television news channels conduct debates on various issues and topics. Some panellists make false claims that are often not challenged by the anchors (moderators) or other panellists. Disinformation has the potential to polarise public opinion and be the cause for people to spew extremist views.

Today, certain individuals and organisations utilise social media platforms as tools to disseminate fake information, often with the intention of sowing communal discord. It is reported that political parties maintain dedicated IT wings to regularly spread disinformation. According to a BBC report, hyper-nationalism exacerbates the proliferation of fake news in India.

Our nation has witnessed numerous violent incidents incited by disinformation and rumours. Consequently, innocent individuals have suffered physical attacks or lost their lives. A decade ago, false news of attacks on migrants from the northeast in Bengaluru prompted thousands to flee the city. Similarly, in Muzzaffar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, violence sparked by a fake video showing a Muslim mob brutally murdering a Hindu youth, resulted in the death of 60 people.

False health information can lead individuals to take harmful medicines or deter them from using life-saving drugs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, false claims regarding the efficacy of certain medication in preventing the disease led to unfortunate consequences, with individuals falling victim to these claims.

Sensitising the youth

Educating students about fake news is crucial today, when youngsters are constantly surrounded by digital devices, making them easy targets for misinformation/disinformation. Even among those who understand the distinction, many inadvertently share false information with friends and acquaintances, lacking the awareness of fact-checking resources to verify suspicious claims.

In India, social media serves as the primary source of news for most people. This further complicates the identification of fake news, which often closely resembles genuine reports. Therefore, it is imperative to equip students with the skills to avoid falling prey to disinformation and empower them to take action when they encounter fake news.

Governments bear the responsibility of fostering informed citizenship among students, enabling them to critically evaluate information and differentiate between fake and real news. To achieve this, governments should mandate educational institutions to conduct workshops on media literacy and critical thinking, raising awareness about fake news and promoting the use of fact-checking websites. This concerted effort aims to liberate students from the pervasive threat of fake news. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Our society needs such educated minds.

The writer is an education columnist and media critic. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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