Are smartphones to be blamed for the rise of fake news?
India witnessed its smartphone revolution quite late in the day, especially in the rural hinterlands where many people still make do with the black and white small box-like phones. However, technology advancements have ensured that smartphones become accessible and affordable for everyone, irrespective of where they live.
Do you want to contact your children in the city? Simply dial 10 digits. Want to see their faces? Just use the video call feature. Learn how to cook a fascinating dish? YouTube! The shiny smartphone screen is like the gateway to Narnia – full of little surprises and nifty features that make our lives no less than magical!
This has been the experience of millions of Indians in the past few years. And with rapid penetration of smartphones in India, data has also been made cheap and easily accessible. No matter what remote village you travel to, you can be assured of posting your picture on social media. And not just you, but even the villagers now have access to fast internet, something that was unimaginable even two years ago. Did you know that while in 2000, only 20 million Indians – or two per cent of the population – were online, that number increased to 100 million by 2010, and to 462 million in 2017? Moreover, projections state that nearly a billion Indians will be online by 2025. This is all because of smartphones.
But smartphones have brought with themselves a new-age menace called fake news. With the arrival of the Internet, a river of information (and disinformation) started to burst at the seams, followed by the birth of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and chat platforms like WhatsApp. With a plethora of options to disseminate information, a lot of people began to leverage these platforms to promote their personal agenda, which were not always for the greater good of society.
Take for instance this case in 2015, where a man was beaten to death for allegedly storing beef in his kitchen, images of which were circulated widely on WhatsApp. It was later found out that the images were fake.
Fake news is a virus, and Indians are particularly susceptible to it. A lot of users have no idea about doctored videos or content that has been edited with Photoshop – they tend to believe everything they see. Combine this ignorance with access to social media on an unprecedented level, and the results are sometimes tragic.
In a report on the perils of fake news, Pratik Sinha, founder of the fake news-detecting website, AltNews, said, “Many of the 220 million Indians on WhatsApp are ill-prepared to pick out the flotsam of truth in the tidal wave of fake news. There’s simply no radar for detecting [nonsense].”
Not all is bad, though. Smartphones have managed to cut across class and caste divide and unite people across geographies to do a lot of great things as well. Increased access to education, women empowerment, business growth, e-commerce expansion, pushing up employment numbers, and lots more – all of these can also be attributed to smartphones.
It would be then right to say that smartphones are just a part of the bigger problem. The need of the hour is to formulate solutions that can stem the spread of this disease called fake news. Organizations and governments are already working in tandem towards achieving that goal. WhatsApp has been working to formulate a solution to curb fake news. The Ministry of Electronics and IT is also reportedly drafting a letter to WhatsApp, which has more than 200 million users in India, to build a technical solution that could help stop fake news from spreading on its messaging app.
As individuals, what we need to do is be extra careful with forwarded messages, and educate people around us to do the same. Avoid clicking on ridiculous headlines, and don’t share unverified reports. Small steps can go a long way in stemming this abuse of smartphones and use it the way it was always meant to – connect, educate and simplify lives.