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Insights into Editorial: The picture is clear, it is top-down misinformation



Fake news as a phenomenon is not new and has been known since ancient times, but the present-day proliferation of digital and social media platforms, which allow for much broader distribution of information to a global audience, makes the need to counter fake news much more acute.

Fake news affects free speech and informed choices of the subjects of the country, leading to the hijacking of democracy.


About Fake news:

Fake news is a deliberate lie or a half-truth circulated with the intention to mislead or cause harm to a section of people.

It is a type of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via the traditional print, broadcasting news media, or via Internet-based social media.

The novel coronavirus, however, has opened up an entirely different problem: the life-endangering consequences of supposed cures, misleading claims, snake-oil sales pitches and conspiracy theories about the outbreak.


Fake news as a biggest concern on worldwide:

  1. With the exception of Japan, which appears to be the only country in this study where fake news scandals are limited to newspapers and tweeted messages that have no outside influence, a fact explained by the difficulty of the Japanese language for foreigners, the widespread distribution of false information and its impact on decision making and democratic processes is becoming a challenge worldwide.
  2. In 2017, a parliamentary committee in Egypt identified the dissemination of 53,000 false rumors over a period of two months.
  3. In Germany, 59% of survey participants stated that they had encountered fake news, and in some segments of the population this number was up to almost 80%.
  4. In Kenya, a country where 90% of the population has access to high-speed internet, 90% of surveyed users said that they received false or inaccurate information regarding the recent elections through social media.


Source of prime concern for Mis-information:

Nearly one in four (23%) in our recent survey say that the Government, politicians or political parties are the source they are most concerned about.

That is more people than worry about misinformation from platforms such as Facebook (16%) or YouTube (14%).

Among platforms, only messaging applications (e.g. WhatsApp) generate more widespread public concern among our respondents. They are named by 28%.


How this Misinformation spreads:

  1. Some misinformation circulates peer-to-peer on social media and on encrypted messaging services as people share supposed miracle cures and ineffective alternative health tips in good faith or carelessly. This can create problems.
  2. But arguably, far more problematic is when people in positions of authority and prominent public figures promote measures that have no scientific basis in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
  3. Meanwhile, Indian authorities often seem mostly interested in going after alleged misinformation from activists (only 9% of our Indian survey respondents identify activist groups as the most concerning source of false or misleading information about the coronavirus), select journalists and news organisations (named by 13%), or on Twitter (which just 4% identify as the platform they are most concerned about).
  4. The picture is clear many Indians think that misinformation about the pandemic often comes from the top.


‘Network propaganda’:

  1. Study after study around the world has found such “network propaganda”, where misinformation is spread by some top politicians, nakedly partisan news media who cheer them on, and well-organised communities of political supporters active on social media and messaging applications.
  2. Top-down misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and other prominent public figures are a small part of the false and misleading claims one can come across online in terms of raw volume, but our research during the pandemic shows it accounts for a large share of social media engagement.
  3. Even when political actors are not busy drumming up outright propaganda in the media and on digital platforms, authorities also sometimes risk misleading the public in other ways.
  4. In country after country, reporters have found that official COVID-19 death tolls are far lower than the actual excess deaths recorded during the pandemic as The Hindu found in Tamil Nadu by comparing Civil Registration System data with the officially reported figure.


Measures taken around the world against Fake news spread:

  1. Some of the countries are also addressing the issue in a more general way by educating citizens about the dangers of fake news (Sweden and Kenya).
  2. Sweden starts at a young age, having enlisted a famous cartoon character to teach children about the dangers of fake news through a cartoon strip that illustrates what happens to the bear’s super-strength when false rumours are circulated about him.
  3. The US Embassy in Kenya launched a media literacy campaign in 2018, initially aimed at the Kenya chapter of the Young African Leaders Initiative, with the specific goal of stopping the dissemination of fake news.
  4. For India, If authorities in India are serious about addressing misinformation, they might take a cue from the fact that much of the Indian public clearly recognise that misinformation often comes from the top, and spend less time worrying about activists, journalists, and Twitter.
  5. More time thinking about how to ensure that citizens can trust that the health remedies promoted by their own governments and by prominent political figures are actually safe and effective.


Suitable measures needed:

  1. The world’s biggest social media companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and ByteDance, are exploring an industry-wide alliance to curb fake news on their platforms in India.
  2. The proposed alliance to be named the Information Trust Alliance (ITA) will be a grouping of digital platforms and publishers, fact checkers, civil society and academia that will aim to control the spread of harmful content, including fake news and hate speech.
  3. Facebook has announced that it currently has over 500 full-time employees and at least 3,500 external contractors who focus on election work, on top of the 30,000 people across the company focused on safety and security issues.
  4. Facebook has placed authoritative coronavirus information at the top of news feeds and intensified its efforts to remove harmful content, including through the use of third-party fact checkers.
  5. A public health crisis is an easier arena than politics to set policies and to take a harder line on questionable content.
  6. Educating the end-users to be more discerning consumers of news by informing them of verification tools so that they can ascertain the accuracy of a news item before sharing it.
  7. A better and more effective approach to limit the influence of hoaxes on WhatsApp and other platforms is to increase media literacy.
  8. The government should bring out a policy framework on the possible harm due to the internet messaging platforms to engage at a deeper level.
  9. Government of India could partner with local news groups to further educate citizens on how to identify real news from fake news.
  10. Imposing hefty fines, like in Germany the Social media companies face fines of up to €50m if they persistently fail to remove illegal content from their sites.



Government should have a mechanism for immediately issuing of notice against sites/people/agencies involved in spreading fake news.

Secondly, Social media websites should be made accountable of such activities so that it becomes their responsibility to have better control over the spread of fake news.

Finally, ordinary consumers of news can play a big role by, first, waking up to the reality that all they read on WhatsApp and Twitter is not the gospel truth, and then, by refusing to pass on what they cannot independently verify with other sources.

Any future legislation should take the whole picture into account and not blame the media and go for knee-jerk reactions in this age of new media anyone can create and circulate new for undisclosed benefits.