Youngsters are having trouble telling what is real and what is not. Photo: iStock

With increased access to social media, pre-teens and teens are increasingly exposed to an avalanche of fabricated content. The situation has become a matter of grave concern in India.

Anshuman Dubey, 16, a 10th grader at an international school in Mumbai, was one of many who shared a newspaper report called “Dying woman molested, video shows” on his WhatsApp groups and Facebook last September.

The disturbing news, published by the Hindu newspaper on a stampede at Elphinstone Railway Station in India’s financial capital Mumbai, was quickly picked up by several media organizations. For two days Anshuman and his schoolmates held heated debates on the “horrible” incident, the background of the “molester” and the type of punishment he deserved.

Later, when the full video of the incident emerged showing the alleged “molester” actually trying to save the woman from the stampede, the newspaper apologized and retracted the false story. “Students were taken aback with the development,” said Sudha Kumar, a teacher at Anshuman’s school. The students had trouble dealing with the fact they had believed fake news.

A number of students at several schools in New Delhi-NCR-Haryana fell prey to another rumor. The “news” – “Five Muslim men arrested for attack on a school bus in Gurugram earlier believed to be attacked by Karni Sena” – spread on social media early this year at the height of Karni Sena organization-led protests to oppose the release of the film “Padmavati.”

Going viral

The principal of a Noida school told Asia Times: “The class was virtually divided on religious lines those days. Heated debate over Rajput pride and minorities carried on for weeks even as the news turned out to be fake. We were in fire-fighting mode even as we were clueless how to handle the adrenaline rush of teenagers.”

Fake news is not limited to socio-political issues. From communal clashes to strikes in the public transport system to GPS chips in currency notes, everything “forwarded as received” can go viral.

“Young students fall for these rumors mainly because these often look authentic with supporting tweets or news links,” said Swati Popat Vats, president of the Podar Education Network and also head of the Early Childhood Association (ECA) of India. Vats added that fake news was forcing innocent children to form biased opinions and have over-the-top reactions to many issues, a matter of great concern for educators. Teacher bodies in India and the ECA have started serious discussions over the issue, Vats told Asia Times.

Automated algorithms, known as bots, help spread false reports, doctored videos, morphed pictures and hoaxes. These go viral much faster than politicians, authorities or fact-checkers can debunk them.

US election, Brexit, France, Germany and Italy

Interestingly, schools across the world are trying to tackle this emerging challenge, which was discussed at length at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai last month.

Fake news, deceptively presented as real news, came under the spotlight during the US presidential election campaign. It also played a role in Brexit and even in elections in France, Germany and Italy, say political scientists.

However, India witnessed this phenomenon before the western world. A professor at Punjab University pointed out: “Here it peaked around Delhi Assembly elections in 2013 followed by 2014 general elections when social media was extensively used to propagate distorted facts and pictures in order to influence the young urban voters, mainly the first-timers.”

This trend did not subside post elections. The test case was Jawaharlal Nehru University, when videos allegedly showed “anti-national” slogans by student leaders, which created a huge uproar in 2016, polarizing university campuses and Indian society.

“The distorted videos or pictures are propagated deliberately to provoke youngsters for violence and appease a section of the vote bank,” said Sabra Habib, Professor Emeritus at Lucknow University.

As India prepares for national elections early next year, fake news is likely to increase, say observers. First-time voters form nearly 5% of the electorate. “Their vulnerability to fall for a political agenda could be exploited by political parties,” said an analyst.

Observers say the problem is likely to get worse as more people get their news online and politics becomes more polarized.

Study shows 82% of young can’t spot fake news

Although teens and preteens are adept at using social media, they cannot differentiate between fake and real news, a study by Stanford University showed.

More than 82% of students could not distinguish between an advertisement labeled “sponsored content” and real news on a website, according to the study. No study on Indian students has been done so far.

“But results won’t be much different here as, despite worries over reliability, many youngsters today consume news from interactive social media platforms rather than newspapers or TV,” said Avkash Jadhav, a professor at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai.

Adults did not do any better. A survey done the Pew Research Center of 1,000 adults found that more than 23% of Americans had shared fake news, knowingly or not.

Vats echoed the findings: “WhatsApp groups of teachers and parents are often full of fake forwards and hoaxes, which create panic among them.”

Are schools prepared to address the issue?

The answer is no, but they are trying. Teachers and schools are largely unprepared to deal with children affected by wrong information, said Marjorie Brown, a social and educational activist from South Africa.

Across the world, schools have started teaching students to be savvy about sources of information.

In the UK, a commission on fake news and the teaching of critical literacy skills in schools has been set-up. The BBC has also launched a program in 1,000 schools to help students spot fake news.

In the US, teachers from elementary schools through to colleges are telling students how to distinguish between factual and fictional news.

Indian institutions are yet to devise any strategy. But some expensive schools as well as activist teachers are trying to address the issue.

Professor Avkash Jadhav and many other proactive teachers have started holding informal discussions in the classroom over the importance of source verification, real news, opinion pieces, paid articles, satire and fake news.

Upma Chaturvedi, a teacher at Awadh Girls College in Lucknow, prescribes a shared responsibility between schools and parents to spread awareness among children.

However, a Delhi University professor said: “The fake news factories owned by political parties are increasingly sophisticated. In the case of Russian interference in the US election, it requires an FBI investigation rather than a lesson at school or home or TV to untangle.”

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