The truth about fake news on social media

We are rushing to judgements against people as we share and search for some strained quality that we believe will set us free.

By Allan Jacob (Fine Print)

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Published: Tue 15 Jan 2019, 8:03 PM

Last updated: Tue 15 Jan 2019, 10:06 PM

An unhealthy obsession. A fetish for failure and finding fall guys and girls. That's what this is turning out to be. Choose a race, gender or demographic and fault them for spreading fake news. Easy-peasy. Sore losers in elections cannot seem to get over it.
First they blame white males, now they are wagging a finger at the elderly (those over 65 to be specific) for fanning cooked-up information online and changing the course of history to put rightist candidates in positions of power.
I am talking of a recent survey that has some fancy data (which may not be the truth) to 'prove' that older people share more false information these days than younger and 'smart' digital natives. Election results have come under increased scrutiny with the rise of troll armies. Others are turned on their head because of deviant behaviour by a select group of people, research claims. We need improved levels of digital literacy for the political winners we want, say Big Tech companies who hold us in thrall while pilfering our data and lying to us that everything they do is above board.
Figures are thrown at the public and I wonder if human logic and reasoning are being set up to lose virtual battles. I believe our intelligence is worth more than the data that machines and algorithms are churning out. Add to that emotional worth of people which makes all these numbers look foolish - unless you have turned into a machine yourself.
Which reminds me of my dad who loves forwarding stuff from his smartphone. He's set in his ways and has a mind of his own. He's really good at sharing stuff even if he doesn't believe it himself - a habit he has cultivated recently to keep up with the Jacobs and Josephs (his maternal side of the family) online. 
I find it irritating. He doesn't. "Whatsapp helps me get in touch with you, vice-versa. What happens if there is an emergency and you keep forwarding junk," I tend to chide him. He mutes the conversation as I if I don't exist.
He won't admit his addiction to the gadget nor do I raise the subject with him when I meet him during my visits to India. I've noticed he chooses a time of day - post lunch. 2pm, it is. He picks his favourite spot - the easy-chair in a corner of the room in our house that must be some centuries old - my great-great grandfather's sit-me-down antique piece.
That's his seat of power from which (shared) wisdom flows from his device, a rich legacy that he believes comes with the solid teak that he towels daily and polishes every year for that smooth finish. Enough with the chair, let me get to the gadget in his hand. So he whips out that smartphone (looks like he's settled on one brand these days), and does his thing. "Must you send those messages at the same time every day... to every individual and group you know?" I often hear mom ask him, gritting her teeth. But he carries on nevertheless. 
I messaged him some months back to stop sending me those forwards or I'd be forced to block him. "I am okay calling you. Just plain telephone calls from my landline in the UAE to yours like we did before messaging apps became the norm," I said. To which he answered, "I prefer Botiming. Download and get that thing working at your end."
We've finally settled on more video conversations on Botim and less messaging on Whatsapp. I am thankful for the app that is a great ice-breaker that keeps the family peace and the father-son relationship on even keel despite the machinations of modern-day devices that threaten to make it sour.
Since he's the senior, dad thinks everyone else is duty-bound to read his forwards, many of which I suspect he fails to read himself. My missus, his daughter-in-law gets some specially chosen ones on how to bring up kids. Shared humour is his forte.
"Dad's funny," says the missus. So why am I feeling left out?
But last week, when I read about seniors or the elderly (I hate that definition of them) sharing more fake news than the digitally savvy youth, I was concerned about my old man's political judgements and leanings and the choices in elections people of his age could make. Being the dutiful son that I am, and a career journalist to boot, I wanted to make sure he reads and views only what is factual. 
I am worried that he is gullible and will be influenced by propaganda despite him subscribing to three newspapers. Sending links from Khaleej Times' India page is what I do now after reading the findings of the ageist survey that is unfair to senior people who vote with their feet.
According to the survey by researchers at New York and Princeton universities, 11 per cent of users older than 65 shared a hoax while only 3 per cent of users of ages 18 to 29 did the same. The study also found Facebook users who were 65 years and older shared "more than twice as many fake news articles than the next-oldest age group of 45 to 65, and nearly seven times as many fake news articles as the youngest age group (18 to 29)."
My dad and others like him, if they get to read this survey, will laugh till their sides ache. These are real natives who are conversant and conservative with the truth. That said, I have little doubt that digital, smart natives can handle the truth. But will they find the whole truth online?

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