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How to spot fake news and stay safe on the internet


FIRST of all, what constitutes fake news and why is it so dangerous? We all grew up in eras when we were brought up to believe in the news that we read in the newspapers, listened to on the radio, and watched on the television set. We did not know any better. It was a time when our government, our elders, our teachers, and our parents told us what we believed to be the truth and nothing but.
Basically the internet and the speed with which it has spread throughout the known world has changed all that, especially within the last few years. Who knows when it actually became such a dangerous tool for false propaganda or for seeking to satisfy the reader and listener’s hunger for a satiety of information, which led to those who had found ways to abuse the system to pervert and twist it to suit their own greedy and nefarious needs and gratification?
Wikipedia describes fake news as “untrue information presented as news. It often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue”.
The prevalence of fake news has increased in leaps and bounds with the rise of social media, especially the Facebook News Feed – it was found by a Buzzfeed analysis that fake news stories about the 2016 US Presidential election received more engagement on Facebook than top stories from the major media outlets leading to the elections that year! Donald Trump himself has been credited with popularising the term by using it to describe any unfavourable press coverage of himself.
Fake news also includes satirical articles passed off as genuine as well as those that misuse sensationalist or clickbait headlines that attract readers to click on the news item to read the contents. Fake news has the potential to undermine our trust in serious media coverage as well.
Clickbait headlines are specially crafted wordings to attract the reader’s attention while browsing the newsfeed on social media such as Facebook, which in turn leads to content which may or may not show the topic related to the headline, or can be either a wild guess or an unproven piece of news or opinion. By then the reader would be inclined to either finish the entire article or to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. These writers are expert at manipulative writing and the twisting and perverting of any given facts and figures.
Here in Malaysia, and to some extent in Sarawak as well, we have been constantly exposed to all sorts of fake news in recent times. They’re usually of a political nature – remember the number of text messages and forwards by WhatsApp groups and friends during the February debacle when the current PN backdoor government had overthrown the PH government? Remember the proceedings leading up to and after the recently concluded Sabah state elections? All of us were bombarded daily by all sorts of fake news from both sides of the political divide. Most of the time we were so totally confused and befuddled by it all – at the end of the day the wisest action was not to take any action by not forwarding it any further.
In politics, fake news is quickly sorted out within a day or two as realities will be exposed in the mainstream media or through official statements made by the politicians concerned. But most of the time such denials are either tucked away in a corner or have less impact than the original sensational fake news itself.
Where fake news can do more harm is the way it can be insidious and can do great damage to either a business or a person’s reputation, say, in the case of a fake rumour that a certain coffee shop or business establishment was recently visited by a positive Covid-19 patient. Without proper confirmation by either checking on the item of ‘news’ or waiting for the authorities to confirm, it would quickly damage and harm that particular business or person and quickly stigmatise its image and damage its reputation.
Fake news on the internet, especially on social media and specifically on the newsfeed of Facebook, can be damaging on whosoever or whatsoever the target is – even if words to the effect that the post had clearly stated that the item of news “is not verified”, “needs confirmation”, or “is awaiting an official statement” – most of the time the harm has been done by the time any rebuttal or denial emerges in due course. Facebookers who use the forum – be it on their personal page or commenting in a public forum must always observe a certain state of decorum, dignity, and personal integrity.
I urge you all not to post anything which you do not know for a fact is true, or have personally verified, or have witnessed with your own eyes. Do not post anything which may cause harm, distress, or damage someone’s name and reputation. On the one hand you may be open to legal action, on the other, if later it is discovered that you had spread the fake news your own reputation will then be tarnished.
The other issue which is common these days is the case of stolen identities and being hacked or spammed especially on social media. Many users of Facebook are again and again being hacked and their accounts stolen as cloned accounts appear often – most of the time I tend to see the same people being targeted.
 
Why should this be the case?
My advice to them is not to click on anything suspicious, not to go into those clickbait pages, and especially do not play games, take part in quizzes, or go into pages advertising freebies or giveaways! Just avoid all these – I have personally been on Facebook for 14 years (it was first opened to all with a Gmail account in September 2006) and my account has never been hacked, cloned, nor have I been blocked for any reason whatsoever.
Right now, the coronavirus has been with us since December 2019 and the greatest threat other than being infected and found positive with the virus is the amount of fake news about it that’s been circulating around – on the internet, on social media, on WhatsApp chat groups, and in many individual messaging forums. One can easily stop such spread and one must do one’s best to ensure that only the truth prevails when it comes to such life-and-death issues. If uncertain of the truth this is what you can do.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a webpage for those who want to report any fake news on the Covid-19. If you need to check on any other kind of fake news, the most reliable webpage available is called Snopes, and you can do a search on its pages at www.snopes.com.
It is my fervent hope and prayer that sometime in the near future we will all be rid of this scourge that we know today as fake news and that there will be available some form of control mechanism that will immediately delete, trash, and block out all forms of fake news on the internet and on social media. But in the meantime, we all need to be on the lookout, be more discerning, and distrustful of any news that we read, any text that we receive on WhatsApp, and ask ourselves – could this be just fake news?
 
Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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