Social Media has become the new battleground for any movement that takes place nowadays. From petition.org forms, to mobilizing for peaceful protests and to expressing one’s opinions on how good/bad a song WAP is. The trail of comments we leave behind in the form of deactivated emails, social media profiles and electronic fingerprints are always exploited by social media aggregators and statisticians to prove their own point of view, since statistics can be used to prove anything. But for real, how bad is this infodemic?
The term infodemic has been coined by the World Health Organization in a response to curb the drastic spread and effects of misinformation across the world. These fake articles, news and statistical analyses are aggregated by fake social media handles by taking over the ones that had been deactivated, or by using temporary emails to influence popular opinions by using myriad statistical data to prove their points
To drive the point further, let us take the biggest event that has happened in the past 5 years: The US Presidential Elections in 2014. During the tussle for the Presidentship between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the amount of news that was being circulated on social media was immense. Millions of bots were used to spam hashtags seconds apart, ranging from anti Hillary posts to overall posts asking for #WarAgainstDemocrats on Twitter.
But why is this the case? Why can’t social media giants like Facebook and Twitter which are the barons for free speech and expression use their might to counter the spread of fake news and misinformation, so that users are free to form their own opinions and not have them shoved down their throats?
A study was conducted this year throughout the months of May-August by the NATO Strategic Communication of Intelligence with an aim of calculating how easy is it to buy fake social media handles and how hard it is to get them noticed by social media platforms. According to the study, the team used around $300 to buy engagement on these fake social media handles on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The report stated that the entire amount bought 3,520 comments, 25,750 likes, 20,000 views and 5,100 followers. These interactions were then used to go backward to about 19,000 inauthentic accounts that were used for manipulative purposes on social media platforms.
The report went on to state that around 80%-85% of those social media accounts were still active even after a month’s time. So as a further step of analysis, the team reported a sample of those accounts as fake, but only to their utter dismay they learnt that even after reporting those accounts as fake, 95% of them were still active.
In hindsight, it doesn’t seem that Mark Zuckerberg having testified in front of the Senate impacted the spread of misinformation and accounts as such. If it so easy to gain so much interaction of off $300 alone, imagine how adept and effective would the people who this for a living be who are supported by their organisations and have planned budgets for these sort of things.
In a society that has become so fragmented that each fragment depends on an entire network of others to function, it becomes easy to manipulate an entire network by just tweaking and modifying the source code of one fragment, and after that there is no work to be done instead of sitting back with a tub of popcorn and watch the drama start to unfold and explode all over social media platforms.
And when you’re also a fragment of such a network, it becomes disturbingly easy to manipulate people by posting of “unpopular opinions” on Twitter and in the Instagram comment section. All of us have atleast once, gone down a rabbit hole wherein we’ve wasted our not so precious time by reading the entire comment chain of two strangers on these social media platforms and see them fight it out. Hell, it feels more entertaining than a sanctioned heavyweight title bout.
So, can we do something to curb its spread? You can’t do much on a personal level, but that doesn’t mean you should. Whenever you come across any disturbingly opinionated article or blog, check to see if the sources used for that article are actually comprehensible and verified. Secondly, you should report any thing that you think is fake news, because it kind of makes it easier for the moderators to have it pulled down (this didn’t work for NATO’s case study, but one can always try).
After actually being genuinely aware about issues like these makes one realize how much information that we consume on a daily basis is opinionated and biased, and not in the right direction and lacking any ability to do good in society. Its true when they say that the only unbiased news is the one you agree with. So, try knowing both sides of the story to make sure your opinion on any situation is backed by information that is verified, and regardless of what your opinion is, based on that information. But just in case we don’t, know well that you’ll be part of someone’s 3 A.M. entertainment in the form of an Instagram comment section fight someday.