The death of two-year old Wang Fengya in a rural county in Henan Province broke the internet in May 2018. Her mother, Yang Meiqin, was harassed online after a fake report painted her as an evil mom who killed her daughter. The cyber bullies went berserk and barraged her phone and WeChat account with threats and abuses driving her to the verge of suicide.
It all started when an article came out in WeChat public account Youcao claiming Yang used her daughter’s rare eye cancer as an excuse to raise funds from the public and spent the proceeds to fix her son’s cleft palette. The news of the morally depraved mother who favored the son over daughter and played the public went viral immediately.
However, a month after Fengya’s death, details start to emerge. A charity covered for the son’s operation and not the crowdfunded money. The article claimed Yang raised funds to the tune of CNY 150000, while in reality it was less than CNY 40,000. And the treatment was discontinued after the doctor lost hope on Fengya surviving the rare disease. She had also handed the rest of the funds to the local government.
The fake news has become an effective tool to polarise the public. The viral video claiming seaweed is made of plastic put the industry in back foot in 2017. Millions of people took to the streets of Hubei Province in 2016 after an earthquake rumor erupted out of nowhere. Back in 2011, salt shortage hoax resulted in supermarkets being looted.
Bytedance’s news app Toutiao used to be a hotbed of fake news. Thanks to its algorithm to recommend personalised content, Toutiao enjoys a huge user base. The app has faced a series of disciplinary actions over inappropriate content in the past including a day’s ban in January. Toutiao was also taken off all app stores in April for two weeks.
The reputation has put Bytedance’s overseas platforms under the scanner as well. Below are two examples from TopBuzz and Helo (both from the house of Bytedance), as reported in Technode.
The headline of the right image cites US President Donald Trump as saying Narendra Modi should be India’s prime minister for life.
The cleanliness drive
In the wake of rising criticism, Toutiao launched a cash-reward initiative, dubbed “100”, on Monday to fight fake news. Hundred spelled out in Chinese is a homophone for “zero rumour”. As part of the drive, Toutiao will give away cash awards ranging from CNY 300 to 3000 to at least 100 anti-rumour articles every month. The initiative came close on the heels of an article in People’s Daily- the official mouthpiece of Communist Party- calling for cleansing efforts in the online ecosystem.
The ‘fake news firestorm’ (coined by BBC) has led to the death of as many as 27 people in seven months in various parts of India. People were lynched to death by furious mobs over rumours peddled via popular instant messaging app WhatsApp and other social media platforms.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year showed how the data of 50 million Facebook profiles were used by third parties to game elections. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was questioned on 27 November over the privacy breach in a joint hearing with lawmakers from nine countries.
The search engine giant Google also drew flak for being a wilful vehicle for fake news especially with its ‘featured snippets in search’ feature. Google’s Chinese counterpart Baidu also faces similar accusation for displaying misleading search results.
The governments across the world are trying to make legislation to curb fake news and protect the data of its citizens.
For instance, Germany passed a law - NetzD also known as the Facebook Act- on January 1 to remove hate speeches from its system and set up filters to report fake news.
In the light of upcoming elections in EU countries, Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech firms agreed on a code of conduct to tackle fake news at the behest of EU commission. However, the move was criticised for lacking in concrete and measurable objectives.
Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Google have stepped up their efforts in India to curb the spread of misinformation.
Earlier this year, Twitter announced it would cooperate with the law enforcement agencies to curb fake news on the micro blogging site in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
After a stern Government of India letter earlier this year, WhatsApp decided to put a cap on the number of forwards for each message. In April, Facebook partnered with Boom, a Mumbai-based fact-checking organisation, to tackle the fake news problem.
Google has partnered with fact-checking portals Alt News and BoomLive and also launched the Google News Initiative in India to train 8,000 journalists to identify fake news.
With the populace wising up to the dangers of fake news, the tech giants should put more efforts to maintain their credibility and take steps to avoid being used as tools at the hands of black hats to spread propaganda and wreak violence.