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The Fake News Epidemic

February 10, 2017 11:30 IST

'So potent is the menace of false news that scientists have now devised a psychological vaccine to target it,' says Veena Sandhu.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

A phrase that reflects a worrisome reality has beaten other contenders to be chosen the 2016 Word of the Year by the Australian Macquarie Dictionary.

A post on the dictionary's Twitter handle, @MacqDictionary, read: 'We are proud to have "fake news" as our committee's Word of the Year.'

That is an odd choice of words for a term that speaks of a sinister trend.

'We are pained to have "fake news" as our committee's Word of the Year,' would have been a better fit.

A deadly psychological war has been unleashed and we are at its receiving end.

In November, the Oxford dictionaries declared 'post-truth' Word of the Year.

There is a nuanced difference between the two phrases, but both point to dangerous emerging trends.

Post-truth is somewhat subliminal. It plays on our emotions and personal beliefs, and drugs us so that our perceptions, and not facts, determine our actions.

Like, a political leader turning to the mass media to have a heart-to-heart with us, handing out selective data and information, and earning resounding applause from us, the hypnotised masses.

Fake News is far more brazen, and deliberately pushes disinformation our way to misdirect us.

This isn't a spoof on actual news. That wouldn't be worrying; that would be funny.

This is fake news coming either from Web sites impersonating as credible news organisations or from individuals who will mindlessly put out, forward, share or re-tweet just about anything on social media without pausing to check its veracity.

I recently read about Eric Tucker of Texas in The New York Times who had barely 40 followers on Twitter.

One day, he read reports of protests against Donald Trump. The same day he also saw an unusually large number of buses parked in the city.

Imagining a connection, he promptly tweeted that paid protesters were being bussed to demonstrations against Trump.

The tweet was shared at least 16,000 times on Twitter and over 350,000 times on Facebook.

It triggered a nationwide conspiracy theory, one that Trump also joined in promoting.

The buses had actually been hired by a company for a conference.

Tucker put two and two together and made it 22. Later, when interviewed, he said, 'I'm a very busy businessman and I don't have time to fact check everything that I put out there.'

We have many Tuckers in our midst.

We also have an uncomfortably high number of people who are systematically playing games with our minds through the media that don't have enough checks and balances in place.

These are often political leaders who try to undermine people whose job it is to allow only accurate information to go out, dismissing them as 'presstitutes' or 'news traders.'

They deploy armies on social media to push their agenda or hound and abuse those who they consider a threat.

This leaves us, the gullible masses who are being worked upon as idiots, in a vulnerable spot indeed.

So potent is the menace of false news that scientists from the University of Cambridge have now devised a 'psychological vaccine' to target it.

They have suggested that 'pre-emptive exposing' of people to small 'doses' of misinformation can help cancel out such bogus claims.

And that every accurate statement needs to come with a 'warning dose' of misinformation.

I am not sure how this will work in the real world, outside of the laboratory and the controlled environment and away from subject groups, where we are always flooded with information.

Years ago, when I had started my life as a journalist, a senior told us freshers something that I hope none of us has forgotten or will forget.

"What is the one quality a journalist must have?" he asked us.

"Integrity," one of us replied.

"Objectivity," said another.

"Honesty," someone suggested.

"It's a questioning mind," he told us.

"Doubt everything. There will be people out there who will try to use you to plant stories in their interest. Take everything anybody tells you with a fistful of salt. Cross-check every information that comes your way."

We now live in an age where every individual, and not just journalists, needs to have a questioning mind.

Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have potentially turned every consumer of information into a provider of information.

But this power also thrusts greater responsibility on us -- both as consumers and providers of information.

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Veena Sandhu
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