Unfiltered communication is one of the internet’s greatest feature, but also its deepest flaw. We receive information more quickly than ever, but very few safeguards are in place to ensure that this information is true. The mobile phone in your hand is a fascinating and complex device: the more you push its buttons, the more data you provide to unseen algorithms which help determine what you see.
A new kind of narrative
News reporting has always presented multiple perspectives on the truth. Editorial decisions can result in very different stories about the same event, with publishers shaping the narrative based on different priorities and biases.
But at least these stories were based on real events, giving us a common set of facts to work with. Today, the very concept of facts can no longer be taken for granted. Consider the rise of deepfake videos which are generated by computer software:
The invention of this technology means that we can no longer be sure whether videos we see online are genuine. For this reason, the existence of deepfake software lowers the information value of any video, whether or not the software is actually used. Unfortunately, a brave new world of deepfakes may soon be on its way, as its technology has become .
However, deepfakes are just one element to consider in our new information landscape. Lookalike websites now deliver invented news stories, hijacking the credibility of the outlets they impersonate. These deceptive stories are designed to be shared on social media, where they go viral before people realize they’ve been fooled.
One recent example involves claims that a particular type of herbal drink can help cure people infected by the current coronavirus. People around Thailand began sharing the recipe for this fraudulent cure, until the Anti-Fake News Center stepped in to correct the record:
Report by Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center, debunking claims of a COVID-19 miracle cure
Although official bodies as well as private news organizations make an effort to catch and correct misleading stories quickly, fake information is not always easy to keep contained. In the worst cases, it can cause either social panic, or reputational damage to the people or institutions it targets. Victims of personal or professional misrepresentation should take clear and authoritative action as early as possible to refute false rumors and reports before they gain traction within wider society.
The rest of us – consumers of news, spectators, everyday internet users – should likewise understand that we each have an important role to play in preserving the quality of the online environment. The more we promote (or even tolerate) falsehoods, the more they will enter the public domain. In order to build a better internet, we must understand how to deal with this phenomenon.
Control leads to empowerment
The digital world can deliver a wealth of knowledge and convenience, but only if we use it responsibly . Here’s how:
- Be careful with your wallet. The internet is home to all kinds of scams whose goal is to separate you from your money. Before pulling out your credit card, always make sure that both the seller and the product are legitimate.
- Check your sources. Make sure you’re following the right accounts and websites. Many social media platforms authenticate official profiles of public people (using a blue check, for example). By keeping an eye out for the blue check, and paying attention to the URL of each site you visit, you can do a much better job of avoiding fakes. Organizations like Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center can also help.
- Look deeper. Genuinely newsworthy stories should include links to at least some of the original sources of information, so that you can see them for yourself. Take a look at this evidence, at least once in a while, to make sure that information has been represented accurately. Alternatively, if you’re not sure about a piece of information, check it yourself by searching elsewhere online. If no reputable websites are making the same claim, skepticism may be warranted.
A generation ago, manufactured stories were slightly easier to recognize.
- Seek balance. Follow news sources and social media accounts that you don’t always agree with. By adding different voices to your news diet, you will find out much more quickly if any of them are posting misleading information.
- Step away once in a while. The internet can be a noisy and emotional place, with many people and platforms competing for your attention. Yet peace and quiet are always nearby if you turn off your device and spend some time in the real world outside.
- Remember who you are. Understand that your posts online become a large part of your real-life reputation. Act according to your values, and when you interact with other people in the digital world, speak as though you were actually with them.
It may be easier to ride a motorbike without a helmet, or drive a car without a seatbelt. But as adults, we know that these precautions are for our own health and safety. We must take similar care when going online — to remain in control of our own thoughts, to keep ourselves aware of what is really happening, and to guard our society from potential polarization.
We should also be mindful that people who are less technologically sophisticated are at greater risk of falling victim to fake news. Future innovations will surely help sort out fact from fiction, but in the meantime, each of us has a responsibility to identify misleading information ourselves and strive not to spread misinformation. By staying vigilant and keeping our digital space clean, we can enjoy the full benefits of exploring our digital world.