Weak spot in the battle - the elderly who spread the gossip

Less than a year ago, concerted efforts to spread fake news were a relatively unheard-of phenomenon.

But today, the problem has become so prevalent that a whole industry has sprung up to combat it.

From new laws to compel social media platforms to take down fake viral posts (see other report) to citizen groups combating online inaccuracies with Facebook comments and blogs of their own, the world is trying to find a solution to the scourge.

While the Government and tech companies have substantial power to stem the flow of fake news, increasingly, citizen groups and media outlets are stepping up to do their part.

However, one group of people in Singapore has left members of the local Media Literacy Council (MLC) scratching their heads on how to help them: the elderly.

This group may no longer be the digitally clueless caricatures of the past, with many owning smartphones and active on social media.

AVOIDING CONFRONTATION

No one wants to be the person who calls out your aunt about the gossip she's passing off as news in the family WhatsApp group.

UNIVERSITY STUDENT ANGELA TEO, on the Asian tendency to defer to one's elders, even if they are spreading wrong information.

OPEN DISCUSSION

Do it at the dinner table. Raise the issue with humour, defuse it, correct the falsehood with the facts gently. It's about building a culture where people aren't afraid to step in and say, 'Hey, the things you're sharing may cause panic, and here's why'.

MP ZAQY MOHAMAD, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Communications and Information, on how to not offend elderly relatives while correcting them.

Yet many from this group, MLC head Lock Wai Han says, are guilty of propagating unverified information, such as political gossip or dubious health tips on social platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, with just a tap of a button.

Worse, their social media "shares" may not be addressed by those who know better, leaving such posts to be consumed by those who don't - propagating a vicious circle.

The Asian tendency to defer to one's elders, even if they are spreading wrong information, may be to blame here.

As frustrated university student Angela Teo, 21, put it: "No one wants to be the person who calls out your aunt about the gossip she's passing off as news in the family WhatsApp group."

Even if one is not bound by propriety, not every elderly person has a grandchild or child to point out the inaccuracies in his latest snippet.

ON THE SIDE OF TRUTH

Regardless of one's age, there are many reasons that fake news is so hard to stamp out.

At a conference organised by The Straits Times and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers last week, one of the panels sought to discuss ways to empower citizens against fake news.

Ms Nejolla Korris, who heads InterVeritas International, which specialises in social-engineering awareness and lie-detection training, said it was important to get people who enjoy sharing fake news - perhaps for the sheer entertainment value - on the side of the truth.

But how? Straits Times associate opinion editor Lydia Lim told the forum that journalists ought to do more to get people to understand good media values like those practised in traditional media.

"We don't want to just be first with the news, but also fair and accurate," she said. "These are values that aren't discussed much, and our readers may not even be aware that that is how we do things."

For starters, media outlets can "train" their readers to be more questioning by reminding them of a few questions they should consider before they share anything they come across in social media.

These questions, Ms Lim said, include figuring out who's saying what, and why, and who stands to benefit from a particular piece of news. "It's the old dictum of 'following the money'," she said.

Indeed, news organisations are increasingly seeing the importance of educating their readers.

Earlier this year, the University of the Philippines launched an online educational television network to fight disinformation, some of which is said to come from the country's colourful President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Straits Times also announced last week that readers can send in queries about reports, photos or videos they find dubious to its AskST platform, which its journalists would then investigate, as part of the paper's efforts to educate people and counter fake news.

It may also feature reports debunking misinformation on health issues in its Mind & Body pages to help readers make sense of the many stories on healthcare products and practices they receive through social media.

Asia News Network, a regional media alliance comprising 22 newspapers, including The Straits Times, is also working on a checklist for journalists and readers to spot tell-tale signs of stories with dubious content. Among other things, it will also compile a list of known sites that regularly spread such false information.

ARMING THE YOUNG WITH SKILLS

Education continues on other fronts too.

French daily Le Monde launched an initiative earlier this year that sees its journalists volunteering at schools, teaching teenagers how to distinguish between real and fabricated news.

At the conference, Ms Anne Kruger, a journalism lecturer at Hong Kong University, suggested that media literacy classes be made mandatory so that children, who are exposed to online resources and social media at an increasingly young age, are armed with the skills to verify what is true or false.

At home, the MLC is working with the Info-communications and Media Development Authority of Singapore to roll out campaigns on media literacy in the heartland.

But the MLC's Mr Lock acknowledged that when it comes to the elderly, it takes patience: "We need to take things one step at a time."

MP Zaqy Mohamad, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee on Communications and Information, said one way to fight fake news put forward by older relatives is to take it offline.

"Do it at the dinner table. Raise the issue with humour, defuse it, correct the falsehood with the facts gently," he said.

"It's about building a culture where people aren't afraid to step in and say, 'Hey, the things you're sharing may cause panic, and here's why'."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Weak spot in the battle - the elderly who spread the gossip'. Print Edition | Subscribe