Battling misinformation in a technological age

In an age where technology is practically omnipresent and omnipotent, we are no longer passive information consumers. However, we also no longer trust the media and the culprit for this is the idea of “fake news”. A term that’s been around since the late 19th century, although it was only after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections that it became popular. Recently, it’s even been coined by the Oxford English dictionary.

And yet, in the course of two centuries, no one has managed to come up with a global definition, as is the case with terrorism. Once we form a single, global definition for the concept of misinformation, we will be able to use said definition to create a global policy and battle against “fake news”. Until then, it will merely keep on gaining popularity and decreasing factual knowledge amongst the global population.

The issue is that the power that misinformation has is undeniable. It can destroy the reputation of an entire nation (for example, Trump’s dogged determination to build a wall between the US and Mexico is doing no favours to Mexico’s image in the North-American’s public eye). It can also destroy the reputation of a political candidate all within a few likes and retweets (as was the case of Sarah Palin, who, during the 2008 presidential campaign season, lost credibility after Tina Fey’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live was deemed more credible and reliable than the real Sarah Palin – a case that is now known as the “Fey Effect”).

Even more shocking is that, nowadays, with the power of technology, we can create news out of nothing thanks to the fabrication of images (infamously known as News Parodies), and we can also manipulate images to mislead an audience (common amongst influencers on social media who want to make their images more appealing to the public thus increasing their chances of promoting a product).

But, without a doubt, the worst part is that, while technology could also develop the ability to fight “fake news”, there is no economic incentive to expose misinformation. Everyone is familiar with the idea of “clickbait”, but that does not mean that we are immune to its effects. Taking advantage of this, media agencies carry on attracting their audiences and enticing them to engage with the fake news they publish. More engagement means more money for them. But more engagement also means more dissemination of fake news.

Misinformation certainly is not something new, and it does not look as though it is going anywhere any time soon. But we should not blame the media. Often, we find fault in the media, in the news agencies, in the speed with which everything is moving nowadays and in the constant overflow of images, messages and information. But it is not the technology we should blame. Rather, we should blame the use we make of technology. In the same way that your attitude can shape your reality (a glass is either half full or half empty depending on how you choose to look at it), the use we make of the technology available to us is what truly matters.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web back in 1989, he invented it for the purpose of “information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world”. In other words: for the sharing of factual, evidence-based information. And as consumers, we hold the power to demand that. You see, without a buyer, there would not be a product to sell, and without a consumer, there would not be a news story to be read nor shared.

So, I urge you: take a critical stance whenever you watch the news. Read articles from different sources, read articles from reliable sources. Share only what you can see is backed by evidence and facts, and not founded on twisted rumours and void gossip. Support news outlets that are more interested in putting out quality content instead of fighting to be the first one to publish and the one that receives the most shares. Try not to be tricked by the images that are often manipulated and framed in a way that suits the narrator’s story.

As scholars and students, professors and researchers, we can use technology to adopt a stance of awareness, to inform and educate ourselves and to raise awareness amongst others. With the gadgets at our fingertips, we can spread factual and reliable information instead of plaguing the web with more dangerous and misleading misinformation. It’s time to stop spreading “fake news” and start demanding “real news”.

Laura Alberich Arias