Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” the American diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said. This, of course, was long before Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to US President Donald Trump, invented the phrase “alternative facts” – a euphemism for a lie.

Over the years, though, people propagating “alternative facts” have spawned a host of conspiracy theories.

  • When the Americans landed on the moon for the first time, an iconic photograph showed an astronaut’s footprint on the lunar surface. But, some whispered, if there was no water or sand on the moon, how could they make a footprint? It’s just a studio photograph, they insisted.
  •   Some are convinced that the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed six million Jews did not actually take place.
  •  Others believe that dragons actually existed in earlier epochs. The dinosaurs fossils in most museums are fakes, they say, and do not present a real picture of the creatures that roamed the planet in prehistoric times. 

How does one decipher what is true and what is not?

The first thing most people do when confronted by unfamiliar information is to check how it stands with respect to beliefs they hold.

An education that exposes us to science, history and stories about the world is necessary to distinguish between truth and lies.

If you are familiar with physics and have read something about space research, you will know about all the Apollo landings on the moon. If you have studied history, you will have an idea of what the Nazis did. If you have had exposure to biology and evolutionary theory, you will know the origin of dragon myths came from the fear of large predators and the importance of fire in human prehistory.

Then, if you are not sure about some information, you probably hunt for relevant books, articles and websites. You also try to ensure that the resources being used are credible; it is likely that you will trust the information contained in a reputed encyclopaedia or the archives maintained by a well-known university.

After demonetisation was announced in November 2016, Zee News editor Sudhir Choudhury told viewers that the new Rs 2,000 notes were embedded with GPS chips that would enable the authorities to detect them from space.

The collapse of cognition

However, the structure of how we decide to believe something is breaking down, driven by a complex ecosystem of technology and politics. Here are some of the factors that make up this ecosystem.

Many people now get their information and news stories from the internet (websites, social media, blogs) and not so much from newspapers or television.

The general tendency is to assume that what they are reading is true. This is what print culture has taught us. Textbooks are usually edited by someone. So are newspapers. These gatekeepers check things before they are finally published. But this is not true on the internet, where there is a lot of material that has not been verified, making it easy for inaccuracies to proliferate.

As a consequence, there has been an exponential growth of false information on the net: events that never happened, claims that people have said things they never did. Many readers are becoming sceptical about the quality and truthfulness of what they access. Unfortunately, some of this scepticism is also targeted at information that is already proven to be authentic (such as verified historical records and validated scientific principles).

Some fake information that is being manufactured today has very high production values and is technically sophisticated, which makes it very believable.

Often, false stories are designed with the objective of influencing the public discourse so these are crafted with the right emotional “hooks” to generate rage, despair, disgust, elation or hatred. Such misinformation is very effective is building or destroying the reputations of people and the significance of issues.

Weapons of mass deception

The internet, especially social media, abounds with morphed images, doctored videos, edited documents and seemingly vintage scrolls. Images of massacres in unrelated locations are picked up and used in a fake story to show a local leader’s cruelty; photographs of high-quality infrastructure in other places are shown as local achievements. As a report in India Today said, these are “weapons of mass deception”.

In a troubling development, because powerful hardware and software have become so cheap, deepfake videos are on the verge of proliferating. Deepfake videos seamlessly replace a person’s face in a video with that of another person’s. These could purport to show public figures saying things they never said, making gestures they never did. The fakeness of these products is becoming harder to detect.

The preponderance of misinformation has spawned an entire profession of fact checkers and fact checking websites. But this has resulted in debates about who will check the fact checkers because they themselves could have a bias in selectively certifying facts.

How it gets around

To make matters worse, MIT research shows that fake information seems to travel faster than facts and humans help spread it faster than robots.

Most people believe information toward which they have a predilection: they usually reject information that does not match their existing beliefs. People will also usually believe whatever their group does. This is a gift of the “lazy brain”. A lie repeated many times becomes familiar and produces the illusion of truth. There is a general tendency to believe in more sensational material. Worst-case, negative scenarios are believed most.

In 2017, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vijeta Malik passed around a still from a Bhojpuri film as evidence of an attack on a Hindu woman in Bengal.

The factor that actually motivates people to create and propagate false information is pervasive social polarisation. This is driven by a severe crisis of inequality, unemployment and economic deprivation. It has spawned varieties of cultural nationalisms in many countries that oppose the “globalised” political order. Cultural nationalisms tend to be majoritarian, and nurture many types of social divides where the majority becomes hostile to people who from another race, caste, community, gender or class.

Ideological silos

Many political narratives use misinformation to mobilise support. False stories are a potent weapon to polarise citizens on a range of issues, from competing nationalisms, the nature of social discrimination and falsifying history. The creation and consumption of false stories has carved out and deepened ideological silos. It is a vicious circle: these stories are driven by polarisation and in turn create even more of it.

In India, for instance, cultural nationalists believe that Republic TV is credible but NDTV is not; that Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad are controlled by “anti-national”, “anti-people” liberals and leftists who are allies of the “corrupt elites”.

These two groups mostly engage with each other in battle mode, by hurling charges and abuses, on television and on social media. As these ideological silos harden, they are becoming separate universes. The bigger silo determines which set of ideas get the “peoples’ mandate” and what the cultural meaning of nationalism will be.

Driving blind

In such an environment, we are spiralling rapidly towards an information storm where people do not know what to trust, and ultimately will not know how to evaluate the credibility of what they are seeing, hearing or reading.

Today, if those who want to learn about Jawaharlal Nehru, could watch biographical videos about him but they will also encounter other videos that suggest that he was a philanderer and a good-for-nothing who died of sexually transmitted diseases. To resolve these conflicting inputs, they could access other resources on the web or in libraries, national archives, old camera footage and films. But in another ten years, it could be difficult to distinguish between authentic information within the heaps of misinformation.

We could soon be living in a world where misinformation has engulfed the truth; people cannot distinguish between science and superstition; every explanation is a conspiracy; no one is able to figure out which statistics are correct and which are fictional; history has become a wasteland of actual happenings and myths entwined into strands of folklore.

To guard against this, media consumers must be encouraged to use fact-checking services so that this becomes a mainstream norm. News sites should provide quick access to their primary sources, if possible, so that users can themselves assess the credibility of what they are seeing. Digital literacy courses that teach users how to spot fake news and how to guard against it should be introduced in educational institutions as a part of the curriculum. This will enable the development of critical media consumption habits and to identify partisan, emotional hooks.

Projects that study the reasons for social resentments must also relentlessly expose the emotional manipulation being exploited by the fabricators of fake news. Ultimately, the misinformation menace will reduce significantly in volume in a more just and equal world where the motivation to create false information withers away.

Aldous Huxley thought civilisation would be threatened by irrelevant knowledge drowning out the relevant. Little did he imagine that the real may be swallowed by the fictional.

Anurag Mehra teaches engineering and policy at IIT Bombay. His policy focus is on exploring the interface between technology, culture and politics.