Disinformation And WhatsApp University

Ruzbeh Raja is an Information Technology Consultant with over 20 years of experience in the IT industry and is also a Visiting Professor of Law in the University of Mumbai.


‘Disinformation’ is false or misleading information, deliberately spread to deceive people. ‘Misinformation’ is also false information but it is not deliberately spread and could be a result of a genuine mistake, ignorance or simply careless attitude. It’s like a game of Chinese Whispers, where, as information is passed down from one person to another, the original message gets distorted and by the time it reaches the last recipient, the entire message may have changed or may even seem contrary to its original intended message!


Understanding Fake News And Why It Spreads: Fake news is when people purposely share lies to fool others. We’ve all seen stories on Whatsapp as also mainstream news channels which might not be true. The internet and social media make it easy for lies to spread quickly. Sometimes, we only hear what we already believe because of our friends and the websites we visit. This makes it hard to know what’s true. Our minds have preset notions and therefore we may also interpret information in different ways. When we send out such information through social / electronic media, we often apply our own meaning and interpretation to it.


Impact Of Fake News: Fake news makes it hard to trust the news and important information. It can even make people sick if they follow fake health tips like during the Covid19 pandemic. When people fight over things they read online, it can hurt communities and make unity challenging. A few recent examples of fake news include the recent rioting and unrest in Manipur which started by the spread of Fake News and images of an alleged incident in Delhi, or how during the pandemic, people touted several fake remedies for treating the virus, like applying ghee in the nostrils, sipping water every 15 minutes, using bleach water to sanitize human beings, etc. Many people believed those ridiculous claims and fell victim to many scams too.


How To Fight Fake News: Each of us can help stop fake news. Before we share something, let’s make sure it’s true. We can learn from others and teach our friends and family how to spot lies, too. Try these simple steps to verify the truth about any information circulated on social, print or electronic media:


  1. Independent Verification Fro m Multiple Sources:
    Before forwarding messages which contain alarming or shocking information, browse the internet and take a look for websites of reputed organizations to independently verify the facts. Don’t rely on just 2 or 3 independent sources. Simply putting ‘Forwarded as received’ is not good enough to warn others about the possibility of Fake News and disinformation. Information issued by the Government is always available on the official website of that department which is releasing that information.
  2. Don’t Just Go By Headlines, Read The Whole Article: Headlines are meant to be eye-catching and also distractive. But headlines cannot convey the crux of the article. WhatsApp messages or even Newspaper articles create sensational headlines to cause hype. So read the entire article and form your own opinion – don’t judge the information based on attention-grabbing headlines.


  1. Don’t Read Other People’s Interpretations Of News Articles: Often, we receive information or messages on social media as links, under which is a message purporting to be the summary or interpretation of that article. Often, that interpretation is wrong and the message is peppered with false information or propaganda. Always verify information by visiting the source website, don’t depend on a summary or messages as interpreted by others.
  2. Always Check The Date Of The Article: We often get emotionally overwhelmed when we read an article or receive a message about a lost dog, or lost child or even a missing grandparent. We impulsively forward the message to as many people as possible with the intent to help, only to get the reply: ‘this message has been in circulation since 2005!’ Verify the date before sharing messages. Avoid paying heed to messages which lack a valid phone number and date of incident.
  3. Are You Misreading / Misinterpreting An Article: Due to our education, culture, friend circle, work environment, religious beliefs, traditions and general upbringing, we may be biased and could be understanding an article from only one perspective, which may be limiting us from getting a holistic and comprehensive understanding of the subject. When you receive an alarming message on social media or even through a main-stream news organization, look at it from different perspectives and look for debates and discussions on that subject. Despite opposing viewpoints that you dislike, it’s crucial to hear all aspects of the story, from the eyes of different types of people. There may also be sarcasm, satire or parody to a piece of information and identifying it early can help you avoid embarrassment later.
  4. Stop Chasing Brownie Points In ‘Being First’: We strive to be first in everything in our lives. This instinct also drives us to blindly and quickly forward alarming or outrageous messages on social media – we want to be the first person to have reported it. Many get a kick out of ‘being first’ in sharing news to the group – many even enjoy sharing bad news and hateful content as it gives them a sense of parity with others, if they are dealing with tough situations. In doing so, oftentimes people blindly forward and re-circulate messages which are fake and unverified.


Can Wikipedia Articles Be Trusted?

Not completely. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which can be edited by anyone. Although there are volunteers globally, who verify and try to clean up articles on Wikipedia, there’s always a time-lag between posting of information and the cleanup job by volunteers. When reading information on Wikipedia, do lookout for biased articles, unverified sources, low quality links and even incomplete information.


Tech Term Of The Day: ‘DeepFake’: These are videos which have been manipulated by using video editing technology to make it appear as if a famous person or celebrity is saying something which was never said. Even the voice in these videos is manipulated to impersonate the real person. These videos are so realistic, it’s hard to tell a fake! Famous DeepFake videos include those of Elon Musk touting Cryptocurrency, Barack Obama talking trash about Donald Trump and a famous politician from Delhi talking in a Haryanvi accent. In June 2023, a DeepFake of Vladimir Putin was broadcast on multiple radio and television networks in Russia as if Putin was announcing the invasion of Russia and calling for mobilization of the army!

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