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Is Fake News Illegal?

4 min read

Malaika G. Naidu

Fake News. Sensationalism. Misreporting.

In the last couple of years, the digital world has witnessed a growing trend in the amount of false information that is published. While the digital world has made the dissemination of news easier and quicker, the concept of fake news is older than the internet. Such news was born in the print medium at the turn of the 20th century and was called yellow journalism. A type of yellow journalism is tabloid journalism. However, while yellow journalism aims at propagating false information, tabloid journalism sensationalizes of rumours that may or may not be true.

Is Fake News Illegal?

False Information and It’s Purpose

False Information is any information that is not factually accurate or verified. In politics and current affairs, this is called fake news. Much like wartime propaganda, the purpose of false information is to misinform, deceive or incite the audience. Such news is usually fabricated to influence people’s views, push political agenda and cause hysteria or confusion. And so, false information tends to spike during election times, political turmoil, civil unrest or, as we’re seeing today, during global crises like pandemics.

Spread of False Information

Media houses are required to abide by a strict code of conduct that regulates the information that they put into the public domain. This prevents them from misreporting. However, with the internet and exponential rise of social media, information can now be published and shared with few to no regulations and editorial standards. A substantial percentage of people online depend on social media sites and digital networks for their news. This is particularly worrisome because many don’t even try to verify the information that they consume. It does not help that it is rather difficult to verify all the information that we get today. Social media is a big catalyst in this dissemination of false information.

Economics of False Information

It’s not just that ‘some people like to watch the world burn’; there is actually a robust business model around false information. There is a clear economic gain for those who indulge in this business. Content creators and hosts generate substantial advertising revenue, more so when a piece goes viral. Add to this the algorithms that social media uses to ensure that you only view information that aligns with your preexisting views, ensuring more clicks. This is terrible because we remain isolated from other views that, if made available, may give us a more holistic approach to information.

How Do We Curb False Information?

Here’s another interesting fact. Apart from the super-profitable false information business, there is also the business of fact-checking now! Many large media houses have launched businesses for fact-checking.
However, you can do your part. Here’s how.

1. Verify the source

If it’s a website, look at the URL and whether the website is secure. Often, false information websites will have odd URLs and small spelling or grammar errors in the name. Don’t download apps without checking their reviews. For social media handles, verify their bios and scroll through the comments to gauge the general sentiment.

2. Look Beyond the Headline

Clickbait or attractive headlines are big in hooking viewers. Read the whole article instead of just the headline. Also, false information headlines are usually loud, with many punctuations and capital letters.

3. Cross Verify

Do a quick Google search. In today’s hyper-connected world, it is unlikely that only one source is reporting a matter. Easiest way to verify the credibility of a news piece is to see who all are reporting it.

4. Fact Check

Often old photos, videos and quotes are reused or published without context. Again, a quick Google search should solve this problem.

5. Check Your Bias

We are naturally inclined to accept information if it confirms our own biases. Ideally, when reading news reports, it is best to consume differing views and commentaries.

6. Is it a Joke?

Parody accounts and satire do not fall under false information. They are created to entertain or inform using exaggeration and humour. Before calling a source false, check if they are a parody account. Nothing wrong there, just don’t quote its content as news to someone else!

Is It Illegal?

Now that’s the crore rupee question! Fake news in itself is not illegal. Yes, if the content being published amounts to slander or libel, then that’s a different matter. But sharing false information on the internet is not strictly against the law. There are some countries like Singapore, Germany, France, and Malaysia, et al, who have thought of enacting laws against fake news. However, it’s not easy. If taken too far, these laws could hamper the basic right of freedom of speech and expression. Also, it is difficult to prove wrongdoing with false information. The impact and extent of damage is dependent entirely on how the audience responds to the false information.

CoViD-19 and Fake News

The novel corona virus pandemic, now called CoViD-19 has spiked false information the world over. From misreported numbers by governments and medical associations to false methods to prevent and cure the disease, the internet is flooded with false news and information. The best course of action is to look only towards experts such as the World Health Organization. Tune in to news channels to get your latest information and don’t believe everything you read on social media.

Don’t get caught up in the sensationalism online. False information, especially in such situations, can make the difference between life and death.

Let’s work together. Stay home and stay safe.

Malaika Naidu
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