Differentiating fake news from facts can often be difficult. Photo: iStock

American author Ralph Keyes’ theory of a “Post-Truth Era” might have drawn criticism from postmodernists, but his 2004 book under that title unveiled an age of increasing disinformation. He defines the post-truth era as the age of smart liars who have come up with “alternative” ethics to defend their deceit.

In a post-truth era, “exaggerated truth” is a most effective tool in the hands of political leaders to mold opinions. With the technological advances now in the hands of laymen and leaders alike, the social-media landscape has morphed into a trap for citizens and a hook to catch supporters’ minds for political leaders or propagandist governments.

Keyes’ theory fits the current age of disinformation. Apart from the top-down flow (leaders to the general masses) of disinformation, rapid flows of disinformation impact minds at the grassroots level.

There are myriad case studies analyzing disinformation flows and how they impact the attitudes of the general masses and amplify any specific crisis, during which dissemination of information begins to flow rapidly.

The era of Donald Trump marked the beginning of the post-truth era. Professor Alberto Cairo of Miami University, in his book How Charts Lie, writes that the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a misconception. He attempts throughout the book to prove that a picture can only be worth a thousand words if one knows how to “read” it.

Similarly, Keyes writes that Trump claimed that 200,000 copies of the book Trump: The Art of the Deal were printed. However, the actual number was 150,000. About his TV show The Apprentice, Trump claimed that it was the top in the rating list of one season when in reality, it was at No 7.

Apart from Trump’s frequent accusations of news organizations being fake, social media have intensified the spread of disinformation drastically. During a crisis such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, people are bombarded with information. The most crucial need in such a crisis is to separate accurate information from rumors and disinformation. For instance, in the United States, a rumor started circulating amid the outbreak. The message read, “Martial law is coming.” It took hours for authorities to debunk the rumor after it created panic.

Similarly, the prime ministers of Pakistan and India both addressed their nations before locking down their countries to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak. India’s Narendra Modi cautioned his people against any rumor they encountered. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan emphasized the role of the media and maintained that “accurate information” was crucial in a time of crisis.

Specifically, the social dynamics of Pakistani society, with religious sentiments playing an important role in shaping the response of people to the crisis, leave people prone to reacting to disinformation rapidly. Responding to a hoax, many in Pakistan anxiously waited to see how “special military helicopters” would spray disinfectants to cleanse the cities of the virus. Later the military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), debunked the rumor.

Experts have found journalistic ways to purge the heap of information of rumors and disinformation. David Rand, an associate professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences studying misinformation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview that headlines are written on basis of “catching the minds of the readers.” According to Rand, inaccuracy in a headline leads to problems if the text of the article contradicts with headline.

The coronavirus outbreak has intensified medical research too. The research papers, with some trial-based results, are intermittently published. Media are quick to react, reproducing research with journalistic jargon for public consumption. For instance, when news broke about “choloroquine” as an effective drug against the virus that causes Covid-19, it not only vanished from markets, but people were reported to have died after self-medication.

Fortunately, the social-media giants and many news organizations have separate wings for fact-checking. On March 16, Twitter announced that users are bound to remove posts that rebuff recommendations from global or local public health authorities. On the same day, in a joint statement, all social-media giants described how their platforms were evaluating authoritative content to fight disinformation about Covid-19.

On an individual level, the general public can do fact-checking too. For this, crowdsourcing is integral before forwarding information. This means either waiting for fact-checking authorities to flag rumors or post the information on social media with the tag “fact-checking” to get clarification in response. Fact-checking is important, because we live in a “post-information” age too.

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Ayaz Khan is a freelance journalist based in Balochistan and currently pursuing an MPhil from the University of Karachi, majoring in mass communication.