Social Media: Prospect and Challenges

[oped of the day] Shaking the foundation of fake news

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : The issue of Fake News and handling it

Op-ed of the day is the most important editorial of the day. This will cover a key issue that came in the news and for which students must pay attention. This will also take care of certain key issues students have to cover in respective GS papers.

Context

Combating fake news is a growing preoccupation with the technology platforms, the political class, the news media. 

Fake News

  • Fake news is not a new phenomenon linked to the rise of social media.
  • Governments and political actors have always invested in disinformation campaigns to build narratives of their choice. 
  • Institutional news media is no longer seen as an arbitrator of the ‘real news’. It lost credibility due to complicit and motivated reporting. 
  • The advent of social media has decentralised the creation and propagation of fake news. 
  • This has led to the difficulty in controlling/eliminating fake news.

Response to fake news

  • The current response to fake news primarily revolves around three prongs
    • Rebuttal
    • Removal of the fake news item
    • Educating the public. 
  • They are not sufficient in themselves to address the larger ‘political’ problem posed by fake news.

Rebuttal and removal

  • A rebuttal is a form of fact-checking wherein the fake news is debunked by pointing out errors like mismatch, malicious editing and misattribution. 
  • If the fake news item appears on institutional handles, attempts are made to have it removed after rebuttal. 
  • There is pressure on companies like Facebook and YouTube to proactively remove fake news from their platforms and rework their algorithms to ensure that such content does not gain prominence. 
  • The newly introduced limits on forwarding messages on WhatsApp are due to this discourse. 

Educating

  • This encourages educating the end-users to be more discerning consumers of news.
  • It informs them of verification tools so that they can ascertain the accuracy of a news item before sharing it.
  • Another emerging strand is tracking the ‘source’ of fake news to address the issue at its root. 

Challenges in the approaches

  • Along with de-anonymising all social media accounts it will rise serious issues concerning the invasion of privacy and free speech.
  • It may be used by governments to quell dissent.
  • Attempting to rebut fake news may be possible to rebut news on one fake instance. But the ‘fake news factory’ will keep churning out similar stories to advance its chosen narrative.
  • It is impossible to completely ‘remove’ fake news even after rebuttal, given the decentralised nature of dissemination. 
  • Propagation and virality of a news item are contingent not on its accuracy but on how well it conforms to the dominant narrative. 
  • The act of ‘rebuttal’, instead of supplanting the original fake news item, could vie for space with the latter. 
  • The average consumer relies on overall narratives to evaluate a piece of information. The increasing complexity of issues and deluge of information has made it impossible for any individual to develop a well-researched stand on all the topics. 
  • When an individual piece of information conforms to someone’s held beliefs, it is readily accepted and shared.
  • Studies have confirmed that people don’t care about finding the ‘truth’ behind a news item and instead look for evidence to support their preferred narrative – confirmation bias. 
  • Therefore, debunking discrete items of fake news without addressing this battle of narratives will have only marginal value. 

Way ahead

  • If we are concerned about the impact of fake news, we must address the underlying narratives, instead of merely trying to rebut individual items. 
  • By addressing the weaknesses that allow the fake news narrative to take root. Eg., the rise of right-wing due to the loss of credibility of the liberal camp.
  • Mobilize public opinion around an alternate narrative that makes the fake news item irrelevant. 
  • Most people cannot hold multiple stories in their head and thus, instead of poking holes in an opponent’s story, it may be more effective to replace it with a different narrative built on facts.
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