Guarding against fake news

October 28, 2019 14:38
With the rise of social media, fake news has become a growing threat in many parts of the world. Photo: Reuters

I have written before in this column about the negative effects of social media and other digital channels in enabling cyber-bullying. Online intimidation, harassment and doxing have become especially ugly in recent months as Hong Kong’s divisions and protests have continued.

The unrest has also brought attention to another online danger – the spread of rumors, conspiracy theories and false news.

One particularly shocking example was the case of a 15-year-old girl whose body was found in the sea in September. She was known to be a good swimmer and she had taken part in some protest activities in June.

Online speculation began along the lines that she had been murdered. Her school was accused of covering up video footage. In the climate of distrust, a serious conspiracy theory started to form – and even mainstream media outlets started to report the rumors as allegations.

Eventually, the girl’s grieving mother had to go public and state that she was certain her daughter had committed suicide. Even then – as if things were not unpleasant enough – online sources accused the mother of being part of a cover-up.

Another case was an online rumor that people had died in late August during police action at Prince Edward MTR station. Even a lawmaker was among those who paid respects to the dead at a memorial near the station during Chung Yung festival.

Police, Hospital Authority, MTR and other officials all denied that anyone died – but the conspiracy theory has never fully gone away.

Hong Kong people are currently bombarded with rumors and fake news.

There have been lots of photos and video stills circulated of Westerners at protests, along with claims that they are foreign agents organizing radicals. Some are seen pointing at things or talking on phones. The individuals – some of whom have even become semi-famous as a result – have turned out to be just local residents or, in some cases, journalists.

There have been numerous anonymous reports of Mandarin-speaking and other mainland individuals among the Hong Kong police present at protests. These even include video clips that appear to show some officers speaking in non-local accents. Senior police officials not only dismiss the suggestion, but find it insulting that they might need to deploy outsiders.

There used to be a saying that “the camera never lies”. Unfortunately, with digital audio-visual editing apps, even convincing-looking footage can be fabricated.

Luckily, there are ways to protect ourselves from falsified stories and material.

Reputable news organizations use fact-checking editors to examine and verify reports and images. The AFP news agency actually posts its own fact-checking work for everyone to see. Here are some examples of misleading photos that you may have seen yourself.

After a taxi was driven into some protesters, pictures were circulated on social media of an X-ray showing broken leg bones. People forwarding the pictures claimed – and possibly believed – the X-ray was of a victim of the incident. In fact, the photo has appeared on Facebook and in other media for several years.

Another photo being circulated claimed that rioters were being protected in a church. The picture actually showed homeless people being sheltered in a church in Canada.

A photo showing a political slogan in lights on a major office tower in Central had in fact been doctored – there never was a slogan.

The AFP fact-checking results do not cover just Hong Kong. One photo claiming to show the Indian Prime Minister cleaning a beach actually showed a group of totally unconnected people on a beach in Scotland. Photos showing military action, civil disturbances and extreme weather are constantly circulated online with false captions and news stories.

Whether they are simply mistakes or deliberately designed to mislead, items of false news are potentially dangerous. Nearly all of us are exposed to this material on social media. We are naturally tempted to believe the things that confirm our existing views. Fake news almost certainly encourages and increases the divisions and hostility between different camps.

Most of us rely on social media in our working and personal lives. We cannot shut ourselves off from the online world.

But we can make a point of relying on professional and reputable news sources rather than anonymous or obviously biased channels.

We should all make an effort to question what we see, and reserve judgment. If you see a social media post that presents something outrageous or extreme as a fact, it is best to be skeptical. Wait and see what trustworthy and authoritative media have to say.

Most of all, if you see something that makes you especially angry, resist the temptation to forward it on to everyone you know. There is no point in spreading anger. And you may well be sparing yourself the embarrassment of spreading made-up rubbish!

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Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress