From apathy to early awareness: Solving misinformation democratically

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. – Facebook owned messaging service WhatsApp on July 10 published full-page advertisements in Indian dailies in a bid to counter fake information that has sparked mob lynching attacks across the country. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

By Devansh Chaudhary*

A law against the proponents of misinformation and fake news is often seen as the remedy to the infodemic. However, a conversation with Mr. Pratik Sinha unearths a nuanced argument against such a legislative move. Any such law could be prone to misuse as it might become difficult to objectively classify misinformation and the intent of the person spreading it. Hence, it’s a potentially slippery slope and can be misused to stifle dissent or opposition. The idea is that criminalizing misinformation is dangerous because it is a subset of information. However, during the lockdown, certain agencies like the Telangana government have taken legislative steps towards misinformation saying that “admins of Digital Media platforms like WhatsApp will be held responsible and will be tried as per law if any of the member(s) of the group indulges in publicising fake news/ misinformation/ rumours.”

The state government stated that sharing misinformation is not just unethical but also illegal. Dileep Konatham, Director of Digital Media (Information Technology and Communication Department, Govt of Telangana) said that spreading fake news, misinformation or rumours in times of national disasters may attract imprisonment up to one year under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. They may also attract punishments under Section 505 of Indian Penal Code for causing fear or alarm to the public and induce them to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility. The Telangana government has already invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 which states that people indulging in spreading unauthenticated information will be booked under various provisions of the law.

A more preferable approach is a people-centric process as is being followed by Dr. Nehal Vaidya, a pediatrician in Bhuj who is trying to create a curriculum for media literacy. Such a curriculum helps ensure that young citizens are well aware of how to consume news critically and to identify the reliability of sources and content. The ideal policy change is to create a replicable model to be scaled after experimentation by states, close all doors of deniability and give the curriculum on a platter to the governments.

Let’s consider a precedent here. A teacher in a coed middle school in Rajkot gave her class of 25 8th grade students an essay on COVID and its cures. To her dismay, the submissions had a lot of unverified information from Whatsapp forwards. The teacher reached out to AltNews to conduct a workshop for students to help them differentiate between information and falsehoods. The idea was to train the young children so that the values of fact checking could be ingrained in their minds. Interventions at such an age are far more beneficial as they are still in the process of developing biases and don’t have a rigid worldview. When children of this age are becoming increasingly accustomed to online shopping and reading online feedback for products then there is no reason why a similar approach can’t be adopted for the information they consume.

Hence, the sustainable solution to combating fake news and the spread of disinformation is to create an easily replicable curriculum at a scale that can be adopted by the national and state boards of education. Kerala is seeing efforts under an initiative called “Satyamev Jayate” where children in 150 government schools in Kannur district are being taught how to spot fake news when they see it. Due to the constant circulation of fake news, the DC of Kannur, Mir Mohammed Ali started this initiative for educating children on the importance of truth and making the circulation of fake news absolutely obsolete. The initiative talks about what fake news is, how it’s dangerous and what can be done to curb it. The program’s main targets are students in grades 8-12th, which is the age when children become quite tech-savvy and mostly even have mobile phones to communicate with. The teachers would undergo a month-long training and they would then go back and teach their students the same. The program talks about the identification of ‘click-bait’ material and the concept of a filter bubble. The filter bubble is a phenomenon of encountering news that favours one’s point of view.

Therefore, what the program does is, establish a few practices for students to check the genuineness of information received on social media, so that they can dispose of any form of fake news. Students are even encouraged to post correct information to counter the fake news, after thorough research, of course.

Finland – recently rated Europe’s most resistant nation to fake news – is setting an effective precedent by teaching about this in primary school. In their system, these lessons are seamlessly intertwined with the curriculum itself. Students in math learn how statistics can be used to present false claims. Art classes show them how images and their meanings can be manipulated. History students analyze propaganda campaigns while language teachers demonstrate how words can be used for deception. The curriculum is part of a unique, broad strategy devised by the Finnish government after the country was first targeted with fake news stories and the government realized it had moved into the post-fact age.

Fact-checking promotes the following skills:

  • Thinking and learning to learn
  • Cultural competence, interaction and self-expression
  • Multiliteracy
  • Participation, involvement and building a sustainable future

The learning and development of critical thinking and argumentation are of special importance. “Encouragement is also needed for facing unclear and conflicting information. The pupils are guided to consider things from different viewpoints, to seek new information and to use it as a basis for reviewing the way they think.”

Cultural competence denotes the ability to tolerate differences and diversity in others, constructive interaction skills and the all-round development of self-expression. Human rights and media education are especially prevalent approaches in this module. The evaluation of the ideological input in communicative influencing is a good example of the implementation of this module.

The pupils need multiliteracy in order to interpret the world around them and to perceive its cultural diversity. Multiliteracy means abilities to obtain, combine, modify, produce, present and evaluate information in different modes, in different contexts and situations, and by using various tools. Multiliteracy supports the development of critical thinking and learning skills.

With these precedents in mind, a petition has been drafted to propose that education boards at the state and national levels inculcate academic programs in the form of courses or workshops into their calendars where the students are made aware of the problem 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

*IIM Ahmedabad, PGP in Management

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