Taken for a Ride: The ‘Fake News’ Phenomenon

The ‘Fake News’ Phenomenon
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By Jonathon Ang

Over the past decade, we have pushed technology to connect people better and disseminate information faster. The underlying belief is that mankind will benefit from the easy and rapid access to information. The resulting information revolution is the reason why we have platforms like Google and Facebook.

However, as our society progresses, it seems that our woes have multiplied. We now face an overload of information that traditional authorities cannot control. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult for the public to discern what is the truth or what is fake news as anybody can post unverified information on the internet.

If allowed to go viral, fake news can have severe consequences. A well-timed rumour can derail a legitimate election or smear the reputation of an honourable person beyond repair. In the most serious of cases, fake news can lead to divides and unrest in society. The possibilities are endless, and this is why we need to be wary of fake news.

The Scourge of Fake News

The phenomenon of fake news is not new: it has existed since the dawn of time. Our ancestors were wisely aware of their harm and sought to warn us of its perils. Their wisdom is best encapsulated in the Chinese idiom, “three men and a tiger” (三人成虎).

The story behind the idiom is as follows: Over 2,000 years ago, during the Warring States Period in China, a minister named Pang Cong from the State of Wei was assigned to accompany the crown prince to the State of Zhao as a hostage. Pang Cong was wise enough to anticipate that evil people would slander him to the King of Wei in his absence.

Before his departure, Pang Cong sought to warn his king on the dangers of malicious rumours by asking him the following question, “If someone informed you that there is a tiger roaming around the marketplace now, would you believe it?”

A lie that is repeated and heard many times would become the truth.

The King of Wei resolutely replied, “No, I wouldn’t believe it. It is absurd to find a tiger roaming in the marketplace!”

Pang Cong continued, “But what if two people informed you that there is indeed a tiger roaming in the marketplace now?” The king’s confidence was shaken and he admitted that he might reconsider his stand.

Finally, Pang Cong asked, “Would you believe it if three people told you the same thing?”

By then, the King of Wei replied, “If so, I would believe that there is tiger roaming in the marketplace now!”

Upon hearing his King’s reply, Pang Cong advised the King on the dangers of rumours and how people are susceptible and vulnerable to rumour mongering. Although it is absurd for a tiger to be roaming in the marketplace, a lie that is repeated and heard many times would become the truth.

True to Pang Cong’s prediction, many people slandered Pang Cong in his absence. Eventually, the King of Wei lost his trust in Pang Cong and never met with him again.

We should learn from this historical anecdote to be wary of blindly believing in everything we read. More importantly, we should be armed with a healthy dose of skepticism and learn to separate the chaff from the wheat.

Fighting the Age-Old Scourge

As history had proven, there is no way we can eradicate fake news. As long as society exists, there will always be people who seek to manipulate information to suit their interests.

However, this do not mean that we should let sleeping dogs lie. As seen in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, there were accusations that fake news was instrumental in the election success of the President Trump. Unfortunately, it does not matter whether this belief is true or not: once such belief gains traction, it becomes difficult to rectify. Eventually, truth become the main casualty and everyone lose out as the sacred democratic process is unnecessarily tainted.

Given the possible harm brought about by fake news, the Parliament of Singapore established the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods to address this problem. After numerous debates, the Select Committee came up with 22 recommendations, which include measures like public education and legislations to punish purveyors of fake news.

Understandably, the recommendations led to some public discomfort, as there were concerns that they may lead to a suppression of free speech in Singapore. After all, fake news can be difficult to define, and legislations may give the government the power to unfairly penalise legitimate information as fake news out of convenience.

Nevertheless, the Singapore government was quick to assure the public that any deterrent measures would only be applied under strict conditions. For example, malicious intent and harm should be established before any deterrent measures are applied.

You Are More Gullible Than You Think

Some feel that these legislations to deter fake news are overkill, as the public is more than capable of discerning fake news. After all, Singaporeans are highly educated and it may be an insult to suggest that they need protection from fake news. But are such assumptions really correct?

Ipsos, an independent market research agency, conducted an online survey on 750 Singapore citizens and permanent residents to understand whether Singaporeans are indeed susceptible to fake news. According to the survey results, 79 percent of Singaporeans expressed personal confidence in discerning facts from fake news. Participants who were younger and more educated expressed greater confidence of their ability to discern fake news.

However, the survey revealed that only 9 percent of participants managed to correctly identify all five fake news headlines out of the 10 given news headlines. Apparently, a person’s confidence in detecting fake news does not correlate to his ability to do so.

Hence, Singaporeans are not as immune to fake news as they would like to think. This has nothing to do with nationality, age or education level, but everything to do with human nature. Expose us to enough fake news constantly and we may eventually believe what we are told, no matter how absurd it is.

If you are still not convinced how gullible we can be, then let me ask you a question related to the animal kingdom. Where do camels store excess water to allow them to survive for long periods in the desert?

You are definitely not alone if you if think that the camel stores water in the humps on its back. The truth is that camel humps do not store water but contain fats that are an energy store for the camels. Contrary to popular belief, a camel does not store a significant reservoir of water in its body. It just has the ability to minimise dehydration under extreme conditions.

The point is this: it does not matter whether there is really water in a camel’s hump; most people would not pause to question their assumptions as this myth is already cemented in their minds. They will continue to believe this myth until someone dispels it with hard facts.

A myth that is repeated many times can become the truth. Such is the power of fake news. Isn’t that scary?

Surviving in the Age of Fake News

It is only human to believe something that is repeated many times. After all, this is how we are conditioned to learn. But what can we do to reduce the possibilities of us getting duped by fake news?

Government interventions are helpful, but there is still a limit to how much they can do. In the end, we are all responsible for our own thinking and belief: no-one can force us to believe something unless we allow ourselves to be duped.

Perhaps, the best form of defence against fake news is still for the public to develop healthy thinking processes. If the information appears inflammatory or illogical, pause and think before you react to the information. Better still, try to verify the facts with other credible sources and we will usually discover how silly the fake news is.

Of course, it is impossible for us to eradicate fake news completely. We have to live with it whether we like it or not. It won’t hurt us if we believe that the two little camel humps are filled with water. However, we should make sure that we are not duped on issues that really matter to us.

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