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Shaping Perspectives: Misinformation and Social Media

- selling false truths -

By Ahmed Raza

After the horrific Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Holman and colleagues from the University of California had data on 5000 people to assess mental health. They decided to investigate the behavioral changes that occurred as a result of the incident. People who witnessed the incident were evidently shocked, and their mental health was disrupted. But interestingly, the people who had not physically experienced the bombing and only heard about it in the news, were also struggling with their mental health. These results brought to attention the often ignored impacts of daily news consumption on our mental condition.

According to a 2014 research, most individuals perceive brain cancer to be a frequent occurrence since it is overrepresented in the media. On the other hand, cancer of the male genitals, which is the real common disease, is hardly recognized due to less exposure in the media. In short, it won’t be wrong to say that the news has the ability to alter our impressions of the world we live in. From health to tourism, the economy to terrorism, the list goes on and on. The information we absorb has a great influence on us. Therefore, false news is a serious worry that might jeopardize our knowledge of particular issues.

These two phenomenon - the influence of news on our health and the rise of false news - have worked in tandem during the COVID-19 disaster, with a significant influence on our perceptions and response to the crisis. When the Coronavirus pandemic broke out in early 2020, health officials were concerned about two major issues. The initial step was obviously to raise awareness in order to prevent the virus from spreading. The second goal was to combat the spread of misinformation on the internet regarding COVID-19. The World Health Organization coined the word "infodemic" to describe the widespread of false information at all platforms.

At first, some questioned whether the virus was real. Some speculated that it was man-made and utilized to gain political clout, while others thought that it was a laboratory error or propagated by cell phone towers. When vaccines were released, it added fuel to the fire. The line between fact and misinformation began to blur amid the deluge of material circulating on social media. Some have gone so far as to claim that immunizations can alter human DNA. Social media, according to psychologists and misinformation experts, has played a critical role in this information crisis. According to research by the Digital Right Foundation, journalists believe social media is the least trustworthy source of information in Pakistan, with WhatsApp ranking first.

In Pakistan’s case, mistrust of leaders and a general lack of strong institutions has perpetuated this misinformation crisis in the past. According to an e-tribune survey, Facebook, Twitter, and blogging websites are the primary sources of news for 65 percent of users aged 16 to 35. They are especially exposed to false news since they do not read newspapers or watch news apart from mainstream media. The thing about mainstream media is that it is highly influenced by state or right wing perspective. People that watch a certain station always have a skewed perspective. If the station you're viewing is biased toward a specific political party, there's a good probability you'll vote for that party. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Tipping Point. He presented an intriguing argument that even the expressions of news anchors might create prejudices. When the anchor smiles lightly when discussing a particular party, the viewers are more likely to be drawn to it. Even if the material is impartial, the audience's perspective might be orchestrated through body language.

So now the major questions are: How does fake news become so popular? What role does social media play in it, and most importantly what can we do to check the authenticity of any news that we encounter?

Why do we fall for fake news?

Fake news is manufactured to promote ideological or monetary interests. Certainly social media plays an important role in wide spreading of false information but it is naive to only blame social media. A much deeper analysis reveals that it is important to understand human nature whilst studying perspectives. One approach to describe this human tendency to believe in a piece of information without questioning its veracity is confirmation bias. For example, if you despise a particular political party, you may be compelled to believe any false news associated with it, regardless of the source. Your pre-existing viewpoint is reinforced by such news, and you easily join the bandwagon, helping to spread the bogus information to your social circle. Contrary to this you’re more likely to dismiss information that contradicts your pre-existing ideas. When a member of the minority commits a crime, it incites additional animosity. Why? Because rumors alone do not make someone vicious enough to kill; rather, previous tensions between people and ideas exacerbate the process and lead to dramatic events. In Pakistan's case, this element of confirmation bias is deeply entrenched into various institutional and personal practices: from immense partisanship to a 'groupthink'-like atmosphere guiding public opinion, a policy gridlock can be seen to have halted progression.

Furthermore, a person's social circle is typically made up of people with similar interests. As a result, individuals are more likely to accept information originating from a trusted source. People in your network will regard you as a source of knowledge if you post such stuff, and they will share it without even checking the facts. In addition to that, according to the psychology term humans are naturally negative bias. They pay more attention to bad than good information. It's far easier to draw attention to defects in people's personalities than to strengths. Losses stand out more than wins. Even if news stations solely broadcast positive news, we will find it tedious. As a result, although you can readily locate articles criticizing your present administration, finding favorable parts is more challenging. This, when evaluated in the context of voting behaviour, is often called socialisation: the influence of an individual's environment - the people they meet, the media outlets they engage with, the views and perceptions they see - on their opinions and subsequently, the way they vote.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan's misinformation crisis spread across information surrounding the origins of the virus, prevention of the spread, and cures of the virus. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation (which, for necessary context, is a liberal - in the ideological definition of the word - think tank/organisation; read more here!) highlighted the issues that came with fake statements announcing the closures of educational institutions, false claims about 'cures' for the virus, and the rallying of especially contentious notions to stimulate divide. The organisation did, however, also highlight the government and media outlets' role in counteracting the spread of such misinformation, lauding the likes of Sachee Khabar.

Pakistan and Misinformation - Beyond COVID-19

In Pakistan’s case, misinformation historically has led to a perpetual sense of polarisation across class, gender, ethnic and religious lines. The national-scale vulnerabilities that come with a literacy rate of just 60%, the entrenchment of a range of ideological paradigms, and the lack of space for constructive, intersectional discourse has stagnated our progression: will the lessons of COVID-19 change our trajectory?


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