Ruminations on the Instant Reach of Internet Hoaxes

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Pic courtesy:

Trolling, according to urban-dictionary, means ‘being a prick on the internet because you can’. Those who are engaged in trolling just like to stir up individual or online crowd. Nowadays, trolling activities have evolved from just passing off sarcastic, hurting remarks. Trolling’s main objective is to make a parody out of our ‘believe-everything-that’s-shared-on-socialmedia’ culture. Trolls have begun to construct purely fictitious stories, based on misinformed, misinterpreted or totally fabricated incidents. Sometimes the targets of these fictitious stories are celebrities and politicians, while most of the times, these trolls love to feed conspiracy theorists of different kinds. And, these fictitious stories aren’t always hateful ones; they can be inspirational too, elevating a famous person to the levels of myth or legend. The more haywire, motivational, courageous, wrathful the false content is, more shares and likes are guaranteed. The viral reach relishes the trolls to create more such fictitious content to be passed over social media.

There’s the false news of Hungarian farmers burning acres of genetically modified crops belonging to Monsanto, which is being shared way back from 2009 till now with same picture (of burning crop field). Each time the false news is updated, it is passed off as if it happened only yesterday. We know how ‘New York Post’ messed up by printing images of two suspects in connection with Boston Marathon Bombings, based on the information shared on reddit, which later proven to be false. We know how many conspiracy theories were created after the disappearance of Malaysia Airways flight MH370. The most fictitious sharing of information that made me laugh a lot is the passing of secret ‘special welfare bill’ in Italy Parliament. According to this false news, Italian politicians had designed a special unemployment package for themselves, should they lose their seats in upcoming elections. The bill was proposed by Senator Cirenga and 257 members in Italian senate voted in favor (as opposed by 165). The amount allocated for members if they are politically unemployed is close to 134 billion euro. Even many leading newspapers and political organization cited this information and the everyone in social media became furious. Sadly, there was no one by the name senator Cirenga and Italy senate didn’t even have that many members and the sum alleged to be allocated makes up for 10 percent of Italy’s GDP.

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pic courtesy:

There were many cold-hearted idiots who spread a lot of false rumors during devastating ‘Chennai’ floods (one rumor cited that crocodiles have escaped and wandering the waters, clogging around residential areas). Then, there is bunch of gooey, inspirational and courageous stories on movie people (on Meryl Streep to Stanley Kubrick to Christopher Nolan) to create a myth out of their personality. Relation between vaccines and autism; news of a woman who had implanted a third breast; 13 year old stealing his dad’s credit card to buy hookers; world’s first head transplantation; a photo of a person claimed to be a sexual deviant circulating around social media warning all parents; the chem-trail conspiracy theory; Facebook to start charging its users; secret recipe of KFC – the number of shared false, fictitious stories goes on and on and on……….

While we all might be skeptical to believe in such information when hearing it on reality, we easily believe and share that information across the internet. I believe that all false information will have a detrimental effect (however lovely the falsity is). Sometimes the heart-breaking false stories are spread out by scammers and spammers, waiting to trap the people likely to be looking for more information on the same subject. Social media can be a real, clever beast to manipulate us to share and see information it wants us to see. And, since we are beyond the safety of our computer screen, we never know the consequences of spreading false rumors or misinformation. The irony is how even political and social activists shape their views and talk in public forum, based on these viral, no-good information. It is not surprising to see individuals spreading or creating unchecked information based on their own belief system, but it is really scary to see big media-house editors biting on the bait set by internet trolls.

Studies that focus on online spread of misinformation repeatedly talk about the term ‘echo chambers’. When you are selectively exposed to specific number of content in social media you become a part of an ‘echo chamber’. Within this chamber, you and your so-called online friends tend to shape, reinforce and spread a set of beliefs (true or false). Members of academia state that an ‘echo chamber’ is the isolated space on the web, where people share ideas which only echoes each other. There’s no problem when it is people with like-minded views (on politics, social welfare or entertainment, environment) echoing their beliefs, but trouble starts when group of people echo and confirm their kooky conspiracy theories or racial hatred. Even within the circle of people, possessing a noble intent to save our environment, false information are running amuck, creating unnecessary fears and hatred.

Personally, I believe that conspiracy theories are the tools used by bunch of lazy people, who wants to reduce the complexity of real issues by using very simple, easily consumable terms. Those who are spreading false information or creating myths using the personalities of Gandhi or Nehru or Subash Chandra Bose are those who never had the mind to thoroughly read about their sprawling influence on Indian history. And, quite often these lazy bunches get their ‘five seconds of fame’ when their misinformation goes viral. Take the case of Hungarian farmers’ burning Monsanto’s genetically modified crops. There’s no confirmation that such an event really happened in the country. But, a quick check on the internet on the actions taken by governments in European Union (including Hungary) against GMO crops would give you real hope on how much could be achieved through democratic means (not through unproved violent revolution of farmers). But, you see stern decisions taken by bureaucrats aren’t consumable for the online crowd when compared with the image of burning alleged ‘GMO crops’.

Of course, the big question everyone who are revolted by the spread of false or misinformation is how to deal with it. We can check it on snopes, join Internet Truth Legion or at least we should be little skeptical about the truthful nature of any viral information, before spreading it online. We can correct our ‘friends’ often falling prey to internet hoaxes. Correcting those spreading false news can be an exhausting job too. We would be viewed as ‘the person who likes to barge in’. Recent online studies show that articles disproving a rumor or misinformation are shared very less than the rumor itself. So, some times when you counter false information with the article disproving it, you may be seen as obnoxious, nerdy, know-it-all type person. And, before correcting your ‘friends’, you also need to think how you would like to be corrected, if you were the one spreading such idiotic information (at times, the social media ‘friends’ can easily un-friend you for telling truth or correcting them). Eventually the biggest challenge for those spreading facts and truthful information is to make it as fun to share as the falsehood that tries to replace. Or else, it is better to spend less time on this bickering virtual space and rather read an engaging paperback, on subjects varying from history to environment to anthropology to pure fiction, because the information and discussions online, nowadays seems to only belong to the ‘pure fiction’ category.

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