It's up to you, yes you, to stop fake news

Why does fake news spread? One reason is that many of those who realise a social media post is false do nothing.

Initial results from a survey we conducted at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) found that 73 per cent ignore fake news they see on social media.

The survey was conducted in October last year and involved about 2,500 Singapore residents, who were asked what they usually do when they read false news on social media.

The project was a research collaboration in NTU which included Professor Richard Ling, Assistant Professor Andrew Duffy and Assistant Professor Debbie Goh.

Only a handful reported engaging in corrective action. 12.2 per cent said they would report the wrong post so it gets removed; 12.1 per cent would post a comment to say the post is wrong; 11.4 per cent would message the source to say the post is wrong; and only 6.5 per cent would post a correction on their own social media account.

While these users do not get misinformed, they risk others being misinformed by doing nothing.

Singaporeans are no strangers to fake news.

The past few months saw numerous fake posts go viral, from a distorted photo purportedly showing the top floors of a new apartment caving in, to claims of fake rice being sold at a big supermarket chain.

While agencies, in each case, quickly posted clarifications and corrections on social media, these came after the original and erroneous posts had gone viral.

Fake news refers to posts that are made to look and sound like a legitimate news story but include erroneous information or accounts with no factual basis.

Fake news has real consequences: In the United States, a man opened fire at a pizzeria in Washington in December last year after the pizzeria was named in a viral fake news post as the site of an underground child-sex ring.

Fake news is not new. Societies have long confronted rumours, and some news organisations have spread inaccurate and incomplete information before. But fake news has found an ideal platform in social media, which allow the quick spread of erroneous information outside the control of institutions, such as news agencies, traditionally tasked to protect public discourse from misinformation.

Fake news also thrives in social networks, as users depend on other users not only for their information supply, but also for verification.

An increasing mistrust in traditional media is being replaced by dependence on popularity ratings online, so that a post that gets viral is accorded more attention and, most likely, more credibility, when viralness does not equate to veracity, only popularity. After all, what's popular is not always what's right.

News organisations have started efforts to fight fake news, something consistent with their social responsibility but also something they need to do to stay relevant.

But such efforts will be futile if users themselves keep a blind eye on fake news.

The need for media literacy is more pressing now than ever. The public cannot challenge the control journalists used to have over mass communication without taking on the responsibility of verification. They cannot blindly depend on social media for news, move away from traditional news sources, and expect to see only vetted information.

This might be a challenge, considering how the online sphere has made it easier for users to stay within their ideological silos, exposing themselves only to information consistent with their beliefs, and connecting themselves only with sources who have similar perspectives.

Fake news takes advantage of this system, as users become more prone to believing in fake news if it includes information or opinion - even if erroneous or unfounded - that is consistent with their personal beliefs.

The same online sphere, however, has also made it possible for users to become responsible opinion leaders to their own peers.

First, users should be responsible not to share a post without verification, especially when the post makes factual claims.

Second, users should not be totally dependent on social media for their news diet. News organisations are credible sources of information not because they never distribute inaccurate information - they have done so several times and will do so again - but because they are accountable for such transgressions, something absent from questionable websites and Facebook pages with no author bylines or contact information.

Finally, users can also use the same functions that fake news has taken advantage of, by starting a network of fact-checkers, of users who actively and quickly correct and report misinformation they see on social media.

The effects of fake news go beyond misinforming individual users. Fake news can muddle public discourse, distort public opinion, and weaken public trust in social institutions. While Facebook, news organisations, and even the Government are designing interventions, fake news is a social problem that requires collective action.

It is something that individual users cannot- and should not- ignore.

  • Edson Castro Tandoc Jr is an assistant professor at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 27, 2017, with the headline 'It's up to you, yes you, to stop fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe