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Riding on Misinformation

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This year might well be remembered for the coming of age of misinformation or “alternative facts,” a term coined early this year by Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to the United States (US) President Donald Trump, during the course of a television interview. A decision of far-reaching consequence this year was based on misinformation. The US exited from the Paris Climate Agreement that mandates the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions because the US President believes that climate change is a hoax. A lot has already been written about how fake news played its part in the last US presidential election outcome. In India, a recent alternative fact that hogged the limelight was the judgment of Justice Mahesh Sharma of Rajasthan High Court who had commented on the peacock’s copulation habits, trashing established scientific evidence. He went on to say that “scientific evidence is not everything, there is religious evidence.”

Historically, misinformation was always circulating in public sphere with impunity. In 1938, a radio adaptation of H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds triggered massive unfounded fears of aliens invading New York leading to panic calls to police stations and hospitals. In 1857, when the British troops were about to enter Delhi, many people including Delhi’s Urdu-language daily Dihli Urdu Akhbar thought that Persian army was on its way to help the beleaguered Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. These are straightforward cases of misinformation or sometimes just plain rumour.

In contrast to these, the present situation is more alarming because when misinformation, claiming to be based on scientific research, joins forces with the power of the internet, it begins to take on the dimensions of truth. A few months ago, Rajasthan’s education minister Vasudev Devnani’s statement about cows inhaling and exhaling oxygen was roundly criticised for being inconsistent with established scientific facts. A minister thus cornered would generally defuse the crisis by stating that he was misquoted or quoted out of context. Deviating from this usual script, Devnani admitted that he “read this fact on research websites.” By citing dubious websites, he had focused on a largely unrecognised problem: the emergence of internet as the disseminating medium for doubtful scientific research and voluminous misinformation.

Ironically, unlike any other time in recorded history, the internet has significantly reduced the disparity in access to information. According to the International Telecommunication Union, globally, internet access went up from covering just 2% of the population in 1997 to about 48% in 2016. Widespread and inexpensive mobile internet connectivity has not only made internet access easier but also the content creation and sharing more affordable. This has meant that the internet carries enormous amounts of misinformation uploaded by netizens and interest groups on websites, blogs, and social media. Some of this misinformation spreads fast and dies out quickly. Some lingers on for a longer time and even begins to challenge established facts. The rationale behind climate change denial and overstating the benefits of cows belong to the latter category.

A report in 2013 by the World Economic Forum refers to such misinformation proliferation in the cyberworld and is titled “Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World,” which flags the potential dangers. In 2012, as hurricane Sandy hit New York City, rumours about excessive flooding in one of its stock exchanges made it to the news channels and was retracted later when it turned out to be false. Recently, several hours before Apollo hospital announced Jayalalithaa’s death, a few Tamil news channels and social media had jumped the gun leading to chaos in Chennai’s streets. A strong denial by the hospital calmed the situation. The effects of these singular incidents of online misinformation die out fairly quickly. Even short-lived misinformation was considered serious enough that, in November 2016, Google and Facebook banned such misleading websites from participating in their online advertising programme.

In contrast, misinformation with a longer shelf life accompanied by claims of scientific scrutiny, of the kind that Devnani relied on for his comment on cows, are far more dangerous. They sustain half-truths and lies. For instance, a website claims, based on its research, that cow urine therapy can prevent cancer cell growth, without presenting any supporting data or clinical trials. It is worrisome when dubious “research websites” are cited as authoritative sources for understanding everything from bovine breathing mechanism to curing deadly diseases. US President Trump had often called climate change a hoax, though overwhelming scientific evidence put together by the United Nations (UN) agency, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, states otherwise. In fact, Trump has ordered the removal of climate change data from the website of US government-supported Environmental Protection Agency. Many anti-climate-change websites peddle misinformation and represent a narrative that lacks research and empirical evidence.

To make matters worse, the last decade had seen an unprecedented rise of predatory or fake academic science journals, which publish only on the internet and lack a print version. They would publish any “research” results without peer review in exchange for a fee ranging from $5 to $500. In 2014, such journals, nearly 27% of them based out of India, earned $75 million in revenue. For a price, every dodgy research can be published in a journal that gives it a veneer of respectability. When all these online forums work together as a collective, at least in the public perception, they begin to challenge the results established by due process of scientific research.

A paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 attributes such behaviour to existence of “opinion echo chambers” on the internet. Their reasoning, based on analysing large data sets of social media activity in terms of statistical physics models, identifies users’ selective exploration of online content as the main culprit. From Trump to Devnani, the increasing tendency of uncritical and selective reliance on research published on the internet, favouring one’s personal opinion, reflects such “echo chamber” effects.

Opinions of public figures, even if factually incorrect, can be tolerated. After all, in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinions. However, they must be rejected if passed off as an outcome of research found on questionable websites. They are a source for convenient truth but not verifiable scientific truth. To tell one from the other, the blinkers must be off while surfing the internet. Or, as a Russian proverb says, “Trust, but verify.”

M S Santhanam

Pune

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