The 21st century saw the internet relegating the newspapers and television to the sideline.
Never before in history have had humans had access to such a vast amount of information at their fingertips.
Along with a tsunami of information, the internet has tremendous misinformation. Philosopher Michael P Lynch writes: “The internet is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer -- often at the same time.”
In fact, you are just a tap away from finding support and “evidence” for any bizarre conspiracy theory: The Beatles never existed, Osama Bin Laden is alive, or the Earth is (still) flat, to name a few.
Not all the false theories floating around are taken seriously, but some are -- especially ones that find proponents in some deranged scientists. This small group of scientists is lured to compromise their intellectual honesty for personal gain.
For instance, Templeton Foundation confers awards to scientists to endorse Intelligent Design; coal companies sponsor research to negate anthropogenic climate change; tobacco companies hire scientists to deny any link between cigarette smoking and cancer, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Social media and its lies
The proliferation of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, has provided the conspiracy theories and phoney news portals the exact fertile ground they needed to grow and flourish. Lies now flow faster.
To the extent these stories are entertaining, awe-inspiring, and have “viral” value, they can be downright lies. The blame primarily rests on the online media, sometimes even the mainstream ones, in a stiff competition with a plethora of other outlets to increase revenue through online ads, broadcast specious stories without a careful investigation of the sources.
With a new addition to online marketing, native advertising -- promotion and selling of a product in the guise of a news story -- it has become more difficult for the unsuspecting users to differentiate between real news and advertisement.
A recent study by Stanford Graduate School of Education found that even the digital-savvy students have trouble judging the credibility of online news and distinguishing advertisements from news articles.
Banning social media to control misinformation and politicisation of information won’t help in the long run
A bleak future
A market research company, eMarketer, forecasts a 17.4% increase in digital advertisement spending. This statistic signals to a frightening time ahead with an overflow of clickbait journalism and poorly sourced news stories feeding into the lowest common denominator, and a subsequent global crisis of authenticity, ethics, and trust.
Unless the tech giants, Facebook and Google, honestly work to control false news stories as they promised, such a bleak future is a high possibility.
Despite having a slow start in the digitalisation process, Bangladesh is quickly catching up with the rest of the world. According to BTRC February 2017 data, the number of internet subscribers has reached to 67.2 million, with a staggering increase of 466,000 users in just a month.
If we take these government statistics at face value and further assume that 80% of internet subscribers use Facebook in the country, the number of Facebook users stands at roughly 54 million.
These data may not reveal the number of unique internet subscriber and therefore, Facebook user, still, it does point to the fact that this media has penetrated widely in Bangladesh.
The majority of those Facebook users treat this social media synonymous with the internet, which makes the aforesaid situation doubly perilous for the country.
The youth have not been able to reap the benefits of information and knowledge the internet offers. Instead, they tend to indulge in a new fad of celebrity worshiping; they often follow groups and pages that brim with propaganda news and read pretentious and dreadful online portals that offer them cheap thrills.
Yet, such stories have the emotional appeal to excite the young, to enrage, and to provoke them in committing petty offenses of digital indecency to mob violence.
So, when a Muslim faction at Nasirnagar of Brahmanbaria was incited by a cyber café owner over a “blasphemous” picture allegedly posted on Facebook by a Hindu fisherman, the zealots developed a new group psychology of impulsiveness, irritability, and empowerment typical to a crowd. Finally, they exhibited their herd mentality descending into a collective hysteria.
Where do we go from here? Counterfeit news and news portals must be stopped.
Banning social media to control misinformation and politicisation of information won’t help in the long run.
What works and what doesn’t
We must not alienate ourselves in this digital world or deny ourselves from the multifarious benefits that social media provides. The commoner gleefully uses this democratic platform to express their opinions, no matter how egregious or relevant those are. Banning this platform will only cultivate a sense of powerlessness.
What we need now is more education and research initiatives from the government to popularise the internet beyond the social media to create an informed citizenry.
On the user’s part, the overworked phrase “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet,” should come to the fore again.
As digital citizens, we should be digitally literate and decent, take online news and views with a healthy grain of salt, scrutinise and verify the authenticity of emotionally and politically charged stories, think critically and self-critique our preconceived beliefs to protect ourselves from lies, misinformation, and mischievous propaganda.
Sharif Mahmud is a University of Utah graduate in City Planning.