The Real Cost of Meme, Fake News and social media trolling
Well, we have all been sent those WhatsApp family-group forwards, where the offers or the facts look too good to be true, or the content seems to be weirdly phrased and seems a bit off! Often turns out to be clickbait? Right? Or maybe you have heard the term “bot account” or recently come across the infamous IT Cells? Most of these can be categorised under the broader umbrella of fake news and trolls, the new menace, which is often being used as a tool to change narratives. It is, however, true that a lot of important conversations are dont on social media, and it has become a veritable hub of information. Everything from resistance movements to social awareness to resource distribution is being done with the help of social media platforms.
The current world population is 7.75 billion among which there are 4.54 billion internet users, 5.19 billion mobile users, and 3.8 billion social media users as per a reputed internet survey organisation. While most people do have predominantly good experiences of these platforms, some form of trolling and fake news have almost become collateral if anyone wants to be on any social media platform or online messaging application.
A major problem of using social media these days is the rise of online trolling. Surveys estimate that on average, 25% of the social media users have been victim to some sort of trolling or the other. For the uninitiated (though chances of this are slim) trolls are profiles, run by individuals or groups, with the sole motive of provoking people, to insult or character assassinate someone, or even send a deluge of offensive messages.
Studies have shown that the people who have generally participated in trolling had been dealing with either an abusive childhood, mental health problems, political and personal vendettas, or have been sexual predators. Trolling can, in most cases, also be considered some form of cyberbullying, and the only way to tackle it would be to report the accounts to the social media platforms and lodge a complaint with the cybercrime departments of the police. Reporting the site is also useful sometimes.
Everyone these days has an opinion and seem to be very eager to share them with the rest of the world. The first mistake in the spreading of fake news is not verifying the content that you consume, especially if it’s from an unknown source. The problem with fake news is not new to us. However, with social media in the equation, the problem has been exacerbated so much that it has now become a veritable tool of propagating disinformation far too easily, and far too fast.
The increase in circulation of false and unreliable news on the internet is a cultural, political, and technological phenomenon that is being witnessed globally. Spend the least bit of time scrolling through your various feeds, and you are bound to come across news presented in an unnecessary polarised way. While even mainstream news content coming from paid media houses also tend to be coloured some way or the other, they at least report a semblance of truth. Conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation that run rampant on the internet are most often a basic google search away from not being taken seriously. However, it’s getting easier to forge media with each passing day, and it’s becoming more difficult for people to tell what is true and what’s not.
Accounts that therefore want to create some sort of a rift in the ecosystem, tend to understand the user tendencies and then weaponise information in such a manner that it starts swaying public opinion or inciting some sort of chaos. Fake accounts, with hidden identities, and specialised programs called bots, take up the onus of trolling and spreading false information with an alarming speed. The manual accounts start spreading the misinformation, and then the bots take it in a million directions.
We all know how the Russian troll farms used Facebook and Twitter to fight a sort of new, information-based cyber warfare, to interfere and influence the 2016 presidential elections of the United States. 13 Russian officials and multiple Russian organizations—including the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, were named as a troll farm. They were indicted by a federal grand jury for various attacks on the American electoral system, including a breach of the Democratic National Committee and spreading disinformation with the intent to influence and interfere in the 2016 election.
Social media data has to be understood from a deeper perspective now, since it has become such a constant part of the lives of a considerable section of the world population.
Of the 4.54 billion internet users, Facebook has 2.23 billion monthly active users and Twitter has 335 million monthly active users, and one can only imagine the amount of content that gets published on these platforms on a regular basis. This vastness and popularity of these platforms are exploited by the bad actors, to infiltrate, and to spread hate and/or misinformation, or just plain harassment.
Prof. Ari Lightman, an expert in digital transformation and emerging technologies said,
“I don’t think legislators sufficiently understand the rules of engagement, the business model, the community, or the social nuances associated with social media. They need to get educated…
Then we need an alliance to be created between legislators, regulators, and social media executives to understand the scope of this problem and identify mechanisms that don’t require anything drastic like platforms getting shut down.
Because social media provides a valuable utility, and that part of the story often gets swept under the rug because there’s so much focus on the abuses.”
The main change that is required right now is for the regulation system to be revamped. Governments need to work together with social media executives to create a more robust system to combat this. The public also needs to do their part in being cautious about potential disinformation, by verifying its sources. In political parlance, this has become what is called a non-traditional security threat and has to be addressed with deftness.
The issue is thus simple. The online space, facilitated by these social media platforms, offers a sense of anonymity and is being taken advantage of by people or groups motivated to create some sort of imbalance. Our duty is to be vigilant, be responsible and as it is extremely easy to fall prey to a slightly tweaked narrative, verify everything from reliable sources before we form an opinion about it.