If one is familiar with the concept of populism, they can understand why many people in the world start these disinformation campaigns. Populism is the concept of one aiming or being appealing to the general people. Fake news is generally pieces of information that are crafted to appeal to the general audience, and trigger base emotions like fear or joy. In this digital age, this sort of news spreads like wildfires.
Speaking of wildfires, in the line of thousands of disinformation campaigns, emerging last month, the fake news of wildfires scorching the forests of Uttarakhand is one of the hottest. There were indeed some forest fires in Uttarakhand, but it was nowhere close to the wildfire that social media hyped it up to be. With hashtags like #prayforuttarakhand and #savethehimalayas, photographs of forest fires of past incidents, and from other countries, were being circulated as headlines. This fake news triggered one of our base evolutionary responses, Fear. Moreover, this news blew up to the point where the Uttarakhand Forest Department had to step in and make a statement to clarify the facts from the fiction. (Read more about their statement here.)
This is a small example of how fake news can induce panic. In this case, the panic was localized and steps were taken swiftly to take control of the panic. But what about all the disinformation campaigns regarding the cure for Covid-19? These fake news are affecting millions, if not billions of people. At this moment without any vaccines or verified treatment procedures, the general public has either gone into denial or are so anxious that they are waiting for any news that will give them hope of everything returning back to normal soon. So, when they receive a piece of fake information about defeating corona through pseudo-medicine or with unverified treatments, or when they fall for fake propaganda that states coronavirus is a conspiracy, etc., they let their guard down and don't listen to the scientists or experts who are continuously warning them to follow the lockdown protocols. This sort of behavior is not just limited to COVID-19. This is a continuous battle that the experts and scientists are fighting across most fields. This is where fake news and disinformation campaigns do their actual damages. In the case of COVID-19, they are not only endangering the person falling for their campaign but also the people in the vicinity of that person who is not taking proper precautions.
So, what to do in a world of fake news and populistic leaders who will say anything to gain supporters? The main goal is not to fall for any disinformation campaigns. To do that one must evaluate the news themselves with real facts.
Always follow the source, look at where the information originated, and see if that can be trusted or not.
In social media, look for legitimate handles. Most social media sites have a way to verify the actual account from all the fake accounts.
Be proactive, not reactive. If a piece of news looks too good to be true, look at it hard.
Language and grammar can also be an evaluating criterion. Reputable news outlets and magazines do not have many grammatical errors.
There are a lot of fact-checking websites available online. Use them to fact check the news.
Over nudging to share can also be a red flag.
In this world, one must be their own advocate and not take information blindly. Everyone, at some point or the other, falls for minor disinformation campaigns. They normally don’t do any long term damages. But fact-checking every piece of news that will affect your life and of those around you is always the better thing to do.
By Kaustav Bose