The advent of the World Wide Web has completely transformed the way we communicate and consume information. Before its conception, people relied heavily on reputable mass media sources—such as newspapers, radio, and television programs—to stay updated with current events, both domestic and international.

Misinformation and false news have been used by political parties and other organised groups to push their political agenda on the masses, for decades. It has been used to orchestrate situations and manipulate discussions that have a significant influence on civic involvement.

Our fast-paced 21st century, with the world at its fingertips, has become a breeding ground for the spread of fake news. The rise of social media has unambiguously resulted in an upsurge of such stories. Anonymously hosted websites have resulted in the propagation of misinformation, carrying forward political polarization, confirmation bias and post-factual politics.

The anonymously published misinformed news pieces posted on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential election received a greater engagement on the social media platform than top headlines from reputed networks. “Nobody fact-checks anymore,” said Paul Horner – a major contributor to fake news websites – in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s how I got Trump elected,” he said.

Being duped by lies, hoaxes and false information has catastrophic ramifications on the society and threatens the very foundation of democracy. Fake news overshadows real news by grappling with it for the reader’s attention. It also undermines public confidence in mainstream media coverage. It uses catchy headlines to draw in a bigger audience and relies on false information instead of making arguments based on facts, logic, and reasoning.

Due to the loosely established definition of the word, the British government has rejected the term ‘fake news,’ since it “conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes”.

Author Sir Terry Pratchett warned about the extent of fake news on the Internet, over two decades ago. According to Marc Burrows in his biography of the late Pratchett, he “accurately predicted how the internet would propagate and legitimise fake news”.

While fake news is produced deliberately with ill-intent to delude and deceive, researchers all over the world are building tools to tackle the problem. One such team of researchers is led by Filippo Mencze. The team of data scientists from Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media (OSoMe) have developed ‘HOAXY,’ a tool that lets users trace the origins of a rumour or hashtag, tracking the spread of information and disinformation across social media platforms.

Vanshika Dhyani – Politics Writer