This is a phrase that we’ve been hearing almost every day for the last five years. It became part of common consciousness when a prominent global politician used it to label, ironically, a traditional news media outlet.
While disinformation, spin, and deceit have been around for ages, the term “fake news” was actually coined when a tiny Eastern European town was found to have transformed itself into a hub for churning out spurious stories on websites masquerading as legitimate news organizations.
These stories made their way to Facebook where they achieved virality among people who found the claims conveniently fitting in with their political beliefs.
They seem to have taken a particularly strong hold among individuals who for some reason exhibit a strong gullibility for false information, but an incredible resistance to actual, provable evidence.
I’m not a psychologist nor am I quick to judge, but truthfully, I struggle to understand the workings of a mind that behaves that way, especially in social media.
When the coronavirus pandemic was just starting, there was a flurry of shared posts, Viber messages, SMS, and emails about what to do and what not to do to avoid getting infected. There were even graphics about the “right way” of wearing masks, which turned out to be completely false.
A lot of people share these things with the thought “there’s no harm in sharing” – thinking that if it turns out to be true, then they somehow helped.
As good as their intentions may be, sharing false or misleading information can actually be harmful. The anti-vaccination movement was borne out of a study published in a reputable medical journal back in 1998 linking vaccinations with autism. The study has since been debunked and retracted by the journal after a peer review, and the physician behind the study has since been stripped of his medical license.
Despite all that, there remains a growing community that is rabidly opposed to vaccines. As a results, medical associations around the world have reported a drop in vaccinations, as many parents opt against inoculating their children out of fear of making them autistic.
Again, well-intended parents who are looking out for their kids. What’s the harm in that?
Well, the World Health Organization and US Center for Disease Control and Prevention have seen the re-emergence of diseases that have been thought to be stamped out such as polio, measles, mumps, and more. These are potentially diseases that, thanks to modern medicine, are preventable. But the seed of doubt planted by that false study has grown into a forest of un-killable weeds.
We’re now living in a world paralyzed because of one disease that, until recently, didn’t have a vaccine. As we all cheer the development and deployment of the Covid-19 vaccines, there remain people who claim that these vaccines will turn us into zombies, or are part of a bigger conspiracy to microchip everyone so governments can track us all.
In the case of the latter, I think our smart devices do a good enough job of making sure we can get tracked, and our social media posts provide enough data for anyone who may want to spy on us – though to be honest, I doubt the Average Joe is interesting enough to be spied on.
We recently saw how a group of people, when misled by false information and conspiracy theories, can turn violent and threaten the peace and order of societies. We’ve seen how, when credible journalism is so denigrated and vilified, people can give greater weight to the ramblings of bloggers who have no adherence to journalistic standards or accountability for the veracity of their words.
So as Average Joes (or more appropriately, Juans), how can we prevent ourselves from falling for fake news?
For starters, if you see a shared post of seemingly shocking news, have the discipline to stop and think first. Always verify before you contribute to the madness. You can actually try to Google it to make the verification process faster. There are now sites such as snopes.com that are dedicated to identifying and cataloguing hoaxes.
It really doesn’t take much effort. After all, most of us are already online all the time, so taking a minute to check can spare you the embarrassment of having amplified false information. By doing that, you can also stop your friends from falling into a rabbit hole of misinformation.
I actually think that it’s human nature – our natural tendency to share things unthinkingly that enable things like fake news and scams to proliferate. After all, when a friend you know and trust shares a post about getting free cash or rebates from a bank, your initial instinct is to believe it, click on it, and input your account information in the hopes of also getting a prize.
It’s high time that we be more discerning and disciplined about the information we consume and share. We need to accept that not everyone is trustworthy or well-intentioned. We can’t stop people from creating or spreading these fake news and scams, but we can stop ourselves from contributing and worse — falling for it.
Stay safe everyone, and make good choices in this new year.
The author is the vice president and head of corporate affairs & communications of BPI and is concurrently the executive director of BPI Foundation