Keeping off the fake news

One of the greatest ethical and epistemic responsibilities of each person in the current times is to keep themselves away from fake news, and misinformation. Keeping guard against it will help us protect our whole personality and how we behave towards our fellow beings. How we deal with it underpins the projection of our social behaviour.

As a source of knowledge, information, misinformation or disinformation, the news which is fed to us through TV sets and web portals is of the testimonial nature. It involves someone or something conveying it by telling, which can take different forms including broadcasting and writing. In this regard, two human instincts play an important role when it comes to dealing with such sources, namely the principle of veracity and the principle of credulity. To put them simply, these two principles say that we humans in normal circumstances often tend to tell truth and we tend to believe what other people tell us; there’s a disposition towards truthfulness on our part. However, only a moment’s reflection suffices to reveal their ambivalent nature. Given their instinctual nature, they easily become vicious tool of spreading rumours, misinformation and fake news. It doesn’t take too much effort to turn truthfulness into deceitfulness and trustfulness into gullibility. Since each of us is born with these two instincts, every one of us is morally responsible to keep off the fake news, rumours or any kind of misinformation and prevent it from spreading.

Now the question is, what are the methods and tools we can use to ward off fake news and misinformation? Do we have to use technological tools or certain measures on our part will do? I believe we have to first educate and train ourselves in this matter. Technology-based tools in themselves will be ineffective as long as we ourselves do not use our innate faculties properly.  In the end responsibility lies with every individual who’s exposed to any kind of news or information. And it doesn’t take too much to equip ourselves with such human tools as to keep us protected from any kind of fake news and misinformation. In this connection, there’s a need of an attitude that one must develop in oneself, and which should get reflected in us as being a little cautious, inquisitive and skeptic.

Donald A. Barclay, the author of the book Fake News, Propaganda and Plain Old Lies, has come up with a set of nine essential questions, each of which has a list of sub-questions which must be asked in order to evaluate any information. I will not list down all of those nine questions here, but a few are very important to be commented upon. These have to do with the creation, dissemination and temporal relevance of information. Whenever you come across any news or information, ask who created it. Asking such question involves getting to know the character and credibility of the author, making sure whoever has created the information under discussion is identifiable and possesses required expertise to write or speak on whatever the content is. Then look for the means which the author has used to publish this information. Following Barclay, I’ll call this means publisher. Publisher is the conduit through which information reaches the public. So it’s as important an element as the information and author themselves. It’s through publishing that information becomes news. Like the author, the publisher must be evaluated along the two axes of character and credibility. In addition, look for the biases and conflict of interests which might be there disguised under the sensational headlines.

Another important question to be asked is related to the date and time of information. I have often seen people on social media sharing outdated posts and news articles. Some people even share posts containing requests for monetary aids and blood donations which are years old. Similarly some old news or piece of information, which has completely lost its relevance, is spread without paying any attention to the date of its creation.

Contemporary philosopher Nicholas Rescher says that trusting someone’s information is like extending them credit. When they prove unworthy of it, stop giving it. Now in order not to lose our truthfulness and not to be in debt of ignorance ever, these are some of the questions which we on human level are capable of asking: Who created the information? Who published the information? How old is the information? They are the tools to fight ignorance and deceit.

Ubaidullah Pandit has studied Law and Information Technology