Echo chambers and filter bubbles: The mechanics of misinformation

By Gauri Sharma*

The media ecosystem of India has been witnessing a shift towards more sensational, short-form news often reported in a manner that incites emotions. As attention spans decrease and the need for quick gratification rises among consumers, journalism that presents very little legitimate, well-researched news along with eye-catching headlines is increasingly distributed to the masses to earn higher revenues. This has been exacerbated by the rise in the number of smartphone users in India with access to the Internet who lack the understanding of how to use the same responsibly. In a system dependent on the legitimacy of information, it becomes critical to study the chain of communication and understand the process by which the components of the system may get adulterated. This function can be performed by fact-checkers who intend to study the flow of such information and filter factually incorrect parts.

It is essential to understand that information can be adulterated in multiple forms, and it’s critical to differentiate between these. The first form is misinformation, i.e., the spread of false information irrespective of intent (to mislead or by mistake). The second is disinformation, where misleading or biased information is deliberately spread in the form of manipulated narrative or propaganda. The third form is fake news which is purposefully crafted, sensational, deceptive or completely falsified information to resemble mainstream news. While the spread of such falsifications could be seen as harmless by some, it stands as a threat to the credibility of genuine news sources. As a result, facts also become susceptible to be called opinions. False stories spread 600% faster than factual stories on social media (MIT, 2018). In such an environment, spreading disinformation to push political and commercial agendas has become all too easy.

Combating the disinformation and fake news epidemic has become more challenging because of deep echo chambers that exist in today’s digital world dictated by algorithms that serve content to appease the user, thus creating filter bubbles that strengthen confirmation bias. People keep falling deeper into these bubbles, and every group has their own versions of truth which make it difficult to convince them that the fake news they may have come across was doctored or factually incorrect. “The term living in a bubble is quite popular now, but I believe this is an inaccurate description of the world today, this bubble is more like a thick rubber that is extremely difficult to prick because once pricked it destroys a person’s worldview. This makes the job of those fighting misinformation even more difficult.”, said Pratik Sinha, founder of AltNews, a fact-checking news website in an interview with three students from IIM Ahmedabad.

Another major obstacle to ensure that the movement against misinformation reaches the masses, as cited by Mr Pratik Sinha during the interview, is the mismatch of incentives between fact-checking websites and big tech companies like Google and Facebook. The algorithms are optimised for high engagement, and since people are most likely to interact with content that triggers strong emotions, algorithms tend to rank such stories higher, even if some of them may be false. In such an ecosystem, it is difficult for companies that require time to research and uncover the truth behind sensationalised fake news stories to gain mass visibility. The current institutions lack the human resources and sophisticated technology necessary to bring efficiency into this process, which is why the turnaround time for fact-checking is still low. Thus, it is usually the channels that post doctored media and articles with little or no research or misconstrued facts that end up gaining more visibility and reach on these platforms.

The young people of the 2010s are living in a difficult communicational environment: baseless rumours are ripe in WhatsApp groups; YouTubers are regarded as eminent authorities and websites masquerading as news services hold the banners of information warfare aloft. These days it is possible to come across even adults who wrongly regard climate change as a conspiracy, colloidal silver as a healing substance and vaccines as a probable cause for autism. Thus, what is needed is media literacy at the grassroots level to ensure that citizens are informed from a young age about how to consume news analytically by using critical thinking and identifying the reliability of sources and content.

With over 59% links being shared on social media without ever being read (Columbia University Study), also known as blind sharing, it is essential to inculcate a sense of responsibility among the young generation that is growing up in a digital world. Media literacy is a skill that is undeniably essential in this century, yet educational institutions have not incorporated this into their curriculum. The Indian system is ridden with laziness and incompetence; political parties believe that they are the default option, and citizens don’t have anywhere else to go. The high financial investment acts as a barrier for new strong political parties that wish to emerge; this then causes the mentality to be strengthened and the desire to create legislation for the betterment of people reduces. So, the responsibility of tackling fake news and disinformation falls on NGOs and independent fact-checkers. Both Pratik Sinha and Nirjhari Sinha believe that the way forward is to work at the grassroots level and educate the youth about fact-checking techniques before they form strong biases.

Media is the fourth pillar of democracy, and the role it plays has a profound impact on the nation and its sentiments. When the media fails to regulate itself, it becomes the duty of the citizens to ensure that they exercise their power and demand the truth. With growing disinformation and polarisation, supporting the truth should be the responsibility of every citizen.

Some students of IIM Ahmedabad have started a petition to urge education boards at the state and national levels in India to inculcate academic programs in the form of courses or workshops into their curriculum to raise awareness about the problem among students and taught some basic fact-checking techniques so that they develop a habit for fact-checking and also contribute in uprooting the phenomenon from the grassroots level.

Help support the cause by signing this petition: http://chng.it/NCqcdfQf8L

*Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad | PGP Class of 2021

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