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COMMENTARY

The fake-news pandemic

12:35 AM December 20, 2016

If we are to build on the medical metaphor of online “virality,” we can say we have reached a fake-news pandemic. Global in reach and wide-ranging in scope—from politics to entertainment—this virtual pandemic has serious consequences in the real world, as we are finding out today.

Consider the recent incident involving a pizzeria in Washington, DC. Spurred by fake news stories alleging that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were running a child sex ring in the Comet Ping Pong’s back room, a 28-year-old man barged into the restaurant, assault rifle in hand, and opened fire, to the terror of its patrons and employees. The suspect admitted to the police that he went to the restaurant to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory, which of course was completely baseless.

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The man’s gullibility may be open for ridicule, but the what-could-have-beens of an angry, armed person barging into a restaurant filled with people make it no laughing matter. And so it is with the other effects of this pandemic in and beyond our political processes.

While some fake news are frivolous, and others are obviously satirical (i.e., Andy Borowitz’s recent “Obama Politely Asks Trump To Wait Until Inauguration Before Destroying World”), many are politically motivated, seeking to discredit—or boost—political entities.

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This cyberwarfare is in full display in the Philippines, where President Duterte’s most rabid supporters routinely manufacture and share his supposed glories, including a fake endorsement from Nasa hailing him as the “best president in the solar system.”

Not content with faking news, some—including those whose main interest is online revenue—have taken to making fake news websites (i.e., the legit-sounding “Denver Guardian”)—or faking entire news websites (i.e., “The Guard1an”—note the “1” replacing the “i”). I realized the damage this kind of fakery can do when someone asked me whether the real “The Guardian” was a hoax site, after I shared one of its stories—incidentally about Pope Francis comparing the consumption of fake news to eating feces.

Indeed, fake news has the potential not only to destroy people’s reputations but also to damage the credibility of journalism itself. This brings us to the “post-truth” predicament of our time: amid an information overload, that of not knowing what to believe.

In the wake of the US elections that saw the triumph of Donald Trump—himself a purveyor of false information—there have been calls for the Silicon Valley giants to take more responsibility, and implement reforms. Although Facebook’s executives have been quick to dismiss its impact on the elections, critics have nonetheless called the social network to task, as it has essentially become the world’s largest de facto news outlet.

Fingers have also been pointed at social media influencers like Italy’s pseudonymous “Beatrice di Maio” and the Philippines’ Mocha Uson who propagate fake news, as well as state actors like Russia whose propaganda machine is being accused of meddling in the US elections.

Some nations have laws penalizing the making—and spreading—of fake news. In Singapore, a student was once sentenced to three months in jail after falsely claiming online that bombs had been found in a bus station.

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing debate on the merits of human editors vs. technological algorithms in moderating stories on Facebook, while others see merit in supporting fact-checking websites like snopes.com and factcheck.org.

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These and other efforts to stem or counter the flow of online misinformation are very welcome, but I think we should also aim for a vaccine, one that can come from the educational system. As a recent study from Stanford University shows, students have difficulty judging online information, “despite their fluency in social media.” If the problem begins early on, so must the intervention.

Educators, take heed: The internet has become a real-life “true or false” quiz.

We better make sure our students have the critical thinking they need to discern the answers.

Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.

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