Many people including well educated ones share information online without realising that some information may potentially cause harm or inconvenience to others. In this article, I will discuss issues with some social media posts, particularly fake news.
General issues with online posts
While we all have the rights to take part in online discussion, our rights have limitations and come with responsibilities. Due to the speed and the size of audience that online post can reach, information posted online is instantly available to a wide audience including those not targeted, and the post can be replicated endlessly. Therefore, a careful judgement must be exercised before a material is posted or forwarded online. When we take part in online debate, we must be respectful and moderate in our language, keep to facts, avoid attacking others, and respect alternative views, as attacking or defaming others may expose us to legal suits.
Some people use pseudonyms and anonymous identities, but authorities can still identify them because online users leave digital footprints. While we can set our privacy settings very high on Facebook for example, to limit who can see our posts, a recipient can still take a screenshot of a post and send to others. It is also suggested that “liking” a post on Facebook is a form of endorsement and can have the same effect as forwarding or creating the post. Thus, there is nothing like an absolute protection if we post inappropriate message.
A rumour is an unconfirmed, widely spread story or statement, which may contain elements of truth or not, but its factual accuracy is not certain. Rumour and gossip share some common characteristics except rumours can occur in formal and informal environments but gossip generally in an informal environment. Accordingly, an online post can constitute a rumour or gossip. Yet, many people don’t consider that when they are sharing a message on WhatsApp platform or Facebook, they may be spreading rumours or engaging in gossip. In 2016, the New York Times reported that the internet is loosening our grip and distorting our collective grasp on the truth with lies institutionalised, as some websites publish solely fake news.
According to Dr Daniel Levitin, the adage was we lived in an age of “information overload” but we now deal with “misinformation overload”. In an interview conducted by the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, Henry Smith, a high school student in Michigan asked, ‘If there is bad information going around, how can we make rational, informed decisions about what is true and what is not?’
Craig Silverman (a journalist and fellow at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University) using his tracking tool (Emergent) identified that false reports circulate much more widely than later corrections that the original reports are false. For example, Craig states that the woman who claimed to have had an implant to add a third breast was shared more than 188,000 times but when the story was discredited quickly that a three-breast prosthesis had been previously found in the woman’s luggage, the information reporting that the woman’s claim was false did not attract even one-third as many shares as the initial false reports.
Furthermore, some of the online rumours are deliberately designed to damage the image of others. For example, in 2014, Michael Essien who was working as an Ambassador for #UnitedAgstEbola received a call from his soccer team doctor that there was news that Essien had Ebola. Essien asked the Doctor, ‘How can I have Ebola? You saw me this morning at training so what do you mean I have Ebola?’ Shortly afterwards, the information was all over the place and he even received well wishes messages from friends and family. Cleary shaken, he requested the assistance of his team, AC Milan to release a statement that the information was a hoax, before the rumour subsided.
Why do people believe in rumours?
The Bible provides the answer to question in Proverbs 18:8 and 26:22 as follows: ‘Rumours are dainty morsels that sink deep into one's heart’ (NLT). The passage is consistent with a conclusion from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) study that "fake news" often trumps the truth because our brains love spreading lies all over the internet. The study concluded further that hoaxes (whether they are unintentional misinformation or malicious propaganda) disseminate more quickly than true news; because from a psychological viewpoint, ‘falsehoods are designed to prey upon some of humanity’s greatest cognitive weaknesses and we don’t think about falsehood rationally. As such ‘falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.’ According to Menczer and Oliveira, accuracy and quality of information do not determine the popularity and virality of a post.
Similarly, the Parliament Select Committee of Singapore in its reports to the Singaporean Government about how to combat fake news on the internet stated that online fake news is more easily believed, travels further, faster, and is much harder to dislodge. The Committee suggested they ‘need measures that have the same degree of strength to counter the asymmetry that exists between the falsehoods and the truth’, including new laws such as the Government having power to cut off digital advertising revenue to those who spread fake news and impose criminal sanctions in serious cases.
According to WebMD, an American online publisher of news and information pertaining to human health and well-being, believing fake news can have health consequence because it can irritate emotions and change one’s mood.
Religious perspective of rumourmongering
According to some Muslims scholars, God warns Islamic believers not to fan flames of evil by spreading rumours and be cautious of anonymous stories for it is bad for a man to say, “I heard” or “they said.
The Bible states as follows about rumours and gossip:
- Leviticus 19:16, God warn us not to spread slanderous gossip among people.
- Exo 23:1, ‘Never spread false rumours …’
- Proverbs 20:19, ‘A gossip betrays a confidence; so, avoid anyone who talks too much.’
- Proverbs 17:4, ‘Wrongdoers eagerly listen to gossip; liars pay close attention to slander.’
- Proverbs 11:13, ‘A gossip reveals a secret, but a trustworthy person keeps a confidence.’
- Psalm 41:6, ‘They visit me as if they were my friends, but all the while they gather gossip, and when they leave, they spread it everywhere.’
- The Bible often includes gossip in lists of specific evils (e.g., 2 Corinthians 12:20; Romans 1:29).
Most importantly, the Bible prescribes how we can help to stop rumours in Proverbs 26:20 as follows: ‘Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.’ In other words, if we refuse to take part in rumourmongering or forwarding the false news, we are helping to break the chain of rumours.
Staged vs real videos
Some videos shared on the internet while appearing exciting are staged and not genuine. Checking the background of messages and videos will help to eliminate false ones. For example, when the Saudi Journalist, Mr Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey, people started sharing some burnt human body purported to be his despite reliable news items available did not support such view. In any case, Al Jazeera investigation reviewed in March 2019 that his body may have been burnt completely in a special made oven in the Saudi Consulate General's residence in Istanbul.
Accordingly, Menczer and Oliveira have recommended that individuals must carefully check the sources of information and avoid sharing content without some critical examination.
Inappropriate contents and limited value in some videos
Some videos and messages have either inappropriate contents or limited value. For example, if one receives a video recorded in French but does not understand French, there may be very little value to the recipient. Similarly, receiving some premade good morning and similar messages sent routinely by others are sometimes annoying. If you want to send greetings or wish someone well, be creative and put a thought into writing your own. Sending one written personally is more touching than forwarding one written by someone.
Some adopted measures to limit the spread of fake news
In January 2019, WhatsApp reduced the number of people one can send messages to at a time from 20 to 5 mainly to reduce the spread of inappropriate and false information. India and Kenya have considered the laws of making online group administrators accountable and even face prosecution in serious cases, if they allow group members to post messages that cause fear and panic. For example, the Director General of Communication Authority of Kenya, Mr Francis Wangusi issued a warning during their general elections that an administrator of WhatsApp group would be held responsible if falsehood and hate speech are spread on the group platform.
In conclusion, before we send, forward or comment on a message or even “like” it, we must carefully consider if it is appropriate to do so.
By Joseph Annor: BA (Hons) (UG); Grad Dip in Accounting (Monash), Master of Accounting (UTS); CPA Australia Professional Program