Curbing the spread of misinformation online

June 25, 2019 16:03
Amid a battle over an extradition bill, Hong Kong saw vigorous campaigns, as well as misinformation and rumors, on social media. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong's extradition bill protests that made headlines around the world in the past two weeks were driven in large part by social media campaigns, with thousands taking to the internet to exhort fellow citizens to come onto the streets to express their anger at the proposed legislation.  

The campaigns proved a big success, going by the record numbers at protest marches on June 9 and June 16, with the latter event drawing the participation of as many as 2 million people, making it the largest demonstration in Hong Kong history.

Facing a huge backlash, the government had no choice but to eat humble pie and put its plan to amend the law, which would have allowed extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China, in cold storage. 

The turnouts at the rallies were a reflection of the power of online and social media, with activists using the platforms to spread their message and shape public opinion. 

Meanwhile, supporters of the controversial legislation, outnumbered as they may be, resorted to their own messaging in a bid to convince the public that fears over the bill were unwarranted. 

As both camps waged an online war, there were many inspiring and thoughtful posts but there were also several cases where netizens were fed misinformation or fake news, either deliberately or through spreading of unconfirmed rumors.

Social networks and messaging platforms were misused by some users to distribute fake and false news, prompting observers to once again raise questions over the inability or incompetence of the online platforms to control the flow -- and reliability -- of information on their sites.

Platform operators were failing in their responsibility to closely monitor their sites to prevent wrong information from being disseminated on their channels, critics said, pointing out that false news will erode the public's trust in the tech entities.

In one case, a pro-Beijing district councilor used a picture of an opposition camp politician as her profile picture on a social media platform. Apparently, the establishment camp lady was trying to mask her identity on the social network by using another one’s picture in order to draw in more young people to what she was posting.

In another example, some pro-Beijing people lifted a news video clip from the Internet and manipulated it with their own subtitling so as convey the impression that the fight against the extradition bill was being opposed by the general public. What the mischief-mongers essentially did was steal someone’s video production and make it their own story.

On being alerted about the incident, the affected broadcaster issued a warning to the social media platform and urged it to remove the edited video online.

With huge amount of information being circulated on the Internet every second, it is admittedly quite difficult for the public or platform operators to monitor or censor any wrongful information circulated online.

The battle is tough -- some would say unwinnable -- but that doesn't mean the internet firms and the public should give up and not mull further measures and safeguards to ensure information reliability. 

In this respect, Hong Kong could perhaps take a lesson from Taiwan, where social media platforms and industry organizers have teamed up in a bid to maintain the credibility and accuracy of information circulated on social media platforms.

Late last week, online platforms Facebook, Line, Yahoo and Google and Professional Technology Temple -- Taiwan's largest online bulletin board -- and the Taipei Computer Association announced they are ramping up efforts to combat misinformation as Taiwan heads for a presidential election in January next year.

In a joint statement, the social media platforms said they voluntarily signed a self-discipline pledge to intensify efforts to crack down on fake accounts and curb the spread of misinformation, Taipei Times reported.

The move came as internet firms have been accused of making insufficient efforts to contain the spread of false news amid election campaigns, undermining the cause of democracy.

Fact-checking is the key to preventing wrong information from being spread on the internet. Facebook assured in the Taiwan statement that it has been devoting resources and manpower to detect and remove false news and other online misinformation.

Google and Yahoo also said they have boosted efforts and resources to implement fact-checking.

In addition, the companies are making an effort to enhance media literacy among the public, to help the users judge for themselves whether a particular news item is true or not.

Returning to Hong Kong, the online platforms here, too, could do with some concrete initiatives in relation to fact-checking as well as educating the public about the threats of wrong information.

Media organizations, meanwhile, need to be proactive and serve as gatekeepers, providing a factual record on all issues and making sure unverified information or rumors do not get purveyed as news.

Collaborative partnerships are needed between the internet and social media platforms and media organizations to curb the menace of false news and rumors that bedevil society.

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EJ Insight writer