One of the top trends on Twitter for the past few days has been on the wedding of Bollywood actors Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif.
While some netizens have been trying to get a sneak peek of the big event – scheduled for 9 December – others are making do with rumours, morphed pictures, and old videos being passed off as real ones.
Take a look at this one video (archived here), for instance, which was uploaded on a YouTube channel called 'Nook Post' on 6 December. It has raked over 72,000 views. The video claims to show pictures from the wedding, but a cursory glance at it reveals that it doesn't hold true.
"But why is it even important to discuss this," you may ask?
Well, while this kind of 'rumour-mongering' or disinformation may seem harmless, it says something about the user behaviour of sharing and interacting with online misinformation.
This is not the only time that we have seen unsubstantiated and unverified information being passed off as news in the absence of verified information. In the subsequent sections of this story, we will try and answer the following questions:
Why do people share dis/misinformation?
Why does misinformation thrive when there is information deficit?
How can this problem be handled?
Why Do People Share Dis/Misinformation?
To explore why people share dis/misinformation, we need to understand the difference between the two terms.
Disinformation happens when a piece of content is shared with the intent to deceive/cause harm. However, a person sharing misinformation doesn't necessarily share it with that intention.
Here are some of the reasons why people share what they do:
Confirmation bias: People tend to share things that confirm their pre-existing biases. This can be exploited by others who would want to promote an idea or amplify certain content.
Monetary benefits: Multiple users and channels on sites like YouTube often share disinformation to gain more followers, likes, and sometimes, for monetary purposes. For instance, the misleading video by Nook Post managed to gain over 72,000 views in less than 24 hours. Certain channels use this tactic to spread disinformation on a host of issues.
Political propaganda: Political parties and politicians often resort to sharing misleading, false content for political gains. This includes false claims about one's work or relying on misinformation to tarnish another party's image.
There are various other psychological factors, like mood and emotions, that affect these sharing trends. Fake news tends to trigger certain emotions, and people share it because they assume it's true, and not necessarily with the intent to mislead others.
In some cases, even mainstream media and news organisations are seen applying little rigour in verifying 'news breaks.' For example, this story about a man hanging from a crane in Afghanistan after Taliban took over was reported by almost every news organisation across the globe. When such information comes from a verified quarter, it is often amplified.
Journalist Craig Silverman pointed out in his paper on online misinformation, titled 'Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content,' "Too often news organisations play a major role in propagating hoaxes, false claims, questionable rumours, and dubious viral content, thereby polluting the digital information stream."
But is misinformation/disinformation also fuelled by "information deficit"? Can it be argued that misinformation thrives when there is lack of information?
Misinformation Thrives When There's Information Deficit
In the same paper, Silverman argued, "Rumors emerge to help us fill in gaps of knowledge and information. They’re also something of a coping mechanism, a release valve, in situations of danger and ambiguity."
"But the rumor mill can also cause panic, riots, and civil disorder," he added.
Often people share these unconfirmed reports/rumours during news breaks or tense situations, which in turn, amplifies false information.
While there are multiple reasons behind propagating disinformation, information deficit also creates a conducive environment for unverified news, rumours and falsehoods to thrive. This misuse of information could very well be intentional or unintentional.
For example, vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories, to an extent, were fuelled by data deficit around post-vaccination deaths.
In 2020, a lot of rumours around COVID-19 thrived as the information about the virus was limited. As people were scared, they wanted more information. Similarly, the government publicised limited information during the Indo-China Galwan clash in 2020, giving way to dis/misinformation.
Even in the case of the Vicky-Katrina wedding, the secrecy (or lack of information) around the ceremony may be prompting users to share and engage with any information that they receive, regardless of its veracity. And that's what people who spread disinformation take advantage of.
How To Tackle This Problem?
While researchers and experts have advocated for more media literacy programmes, another crucial step is not to share information if you're unsure about it.
As Wardle points out in another piece on First Draft,
"Every time we passively accept information without double-checking, or share a post, image or video before we’ve verified it, we’re adding to the noise and confusion. The ecosystem is now so polluted, we have to take responsibility for independently checking what we see online."
Further, as discussed earlier, emotions often play a role when we share something online; if a piece of content makes you feel extremely content or extremely grim, then take another look.
Right now, your WhatsApp may be flooded with videos from the Vicky-Katrina wedding and you may be tempted to share them. But allow yourself to stop and reflect – are they even true?