ONE big problem Malaysia currently faces is how gullible many of us can be when it comes to news on the Internet.
Without questioning the veracity of certain claims and announcements, it seems that oftentimes, anything resembling a news story — whether shared on social media or via mobile messaging apps — is swallowed wholesale.
Let’s look at how WhatsApp has become a popular platform to spread news. How many of you have received forwarded messages that clearly resembled fake news and could have easily been dismissed as such? I’m sure so many have, and speaking from experience, it definitely gets frustrating.
The worst part is that when you question the person who unwittingly forwarded the news – he or she would say, “I don’t know if it’s true or not. I received from someone else so I’m just forwarding it.”
With the proliferation of fake news now recognised as a global trend, one would have to wonder why anyone would want to forward unverified information to others. Doesn’t that make them a rumour monger? And if the news turns out to be false, doesn’t that mean that they were spreading lies?
The problem becomes worse when these rumours stir anger and hate. In Indonesia, for example, the use of misinformation to spread anti-Chinese sentiment heightened religious tensions last year, and sparked protests more massive than the republic had witnessed in decades.
I don’t know how widespread this problem fake news is around the region or the world – perhaps the outcome of the recent U.S. election could be an indication. But in Malaysia, I have to say that it is indeed prevalent.
According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the country’s Internet regulator, most Malaysians get their news from social media and many cannot distinguish between real and fake. The agency even had to hold media literacy classes for nearly a million people last year, teaching them how to tell the difference.
“The (fake) websites are not even as sophisticated as those in the United States, but as long as it reads like something from a newspaper, they can’t tell the difference,” said MCMC advocacy and outreach senior director Eneng Faridah Iskandar, as quoted by local English daily The Star.
“People are beginning to wise up (to fake news) but it can’t happen without a focused education programme. We have a high (Internet) user and penetration rate, but we are still not media-literate.”
This appears to suggest that Malaysians just aren’t vigilant enough to separate fact from fiction. You might say we’re an overly gullible lot but I think there’s really a better, more logical reason: Malaysians are so starved of honest and objective news that we’ve become so easily duped.
For the longest time, Malaysians were fed biased news by the government-controlled mainstream media. And then the Internet arrived and along with it came the mushrooming of alternative news portals, each one offering more variety in the now widened new media landscape.
The World Wide Web quickly became a platform that offered Malaysians a different perspective of news, one that told a different story from the ruling government’s rosy narrative. Suddenly, we had more information sources with online portals like Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and Malay Mail Online providing us our daily dosage of local news.
As the years went by, Malaysians relied more on these online platforms, no thanks to the fact that many traditional media outfits refused to jump the bandwagon and continued to spew what many perceived to be biased reports.
But this isn’t all good.
On the contrary, it has inadvertently awarded credibility to every single online news source, regardless how undeserving many can be. For some among us now, we are conditioned to believe that most of what we read online is the gospel truth, never mind that they are spread by an Internet troll armed with an insidious agenda.
What’s forgotten is the reality that the Internet serves as a mere platform for the dissemination of news and that the authenticity of the information is really up in the air, unless the article is presented by a credible news organisation – then it is their duty to make sure the news is verified.
But as a responsible member of society, it is imperative that we are critical enough to know how to separate the truth from lies. And it really isn’t that difficult.
Here are a few indicators that can help a reader be more informed.
Check the language of the article that you are reading. If there is an unusual number of typos and grammatical errors, then that would be a major signal that the news is less-than-credible. A credible news organisation puts in extra effort and have full-time dedicated staff to ensure quality.
Check the URL, the Internet address of the site. A URL that has weird and unusual extensions and prefixes should set off alarms. A credible news site would at least try to have a either a .COM or .ORG in it’s official URL.
Cross reference the information that you read in an article you find online. Go to more established news sites such as the BBC, CNN, and AL Jazeera, among other household names to see whether they have also covered the same news. If not, then there must be something fishy with the article.
It may take a little more effort on the part of the readers to spot fake news as the copycats and masqueraders have become more proficient in propagating untruths. But a little more common sense goes a long way – don’t believe everything you read and see, even and especially when it is published online.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent