The 21st century has seen the internet relegating the traditional media of information, entertainment, and communication, i.e., newspaper, television, and telephone, to the sidelines. Never before in history have humans had access to such a vast amount of information at their fingertips. With opportunities in abundance to become smart global citizens, we must use the internet judiciously.

Along with a tsunami of information, the internet has thrown up misinformation. Philosopher Michael P. Lynch precisely concludes, “The Internet is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer — often at the same time”. In fact, you are just a tap away to find support and “evidence” for any bizarre conspiracy theories: the Beatles never existed, Osama Bin Laden is alive, or the earth is (still) flat, to name a few. Not all these false theories floating around the internet are taken seriously, but some are — especially the ones that find proponents in some deranged scientists. This small bloc of scientists is lured into compromising their intellectual honesty for personal gain. For instance, Templeton Foundation confers awards on scientists for endorsing Intelligent Design, coal companies for sponsoring research to negate anthropogenic climate change, and for tobacco companies to hire scientists to deny any link between cigarette smoking and cancer, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The advent and proliferation of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, has provided the conspiracy theories and phony news portals the exact fertile ground they needed to grow and flourish. Lies now flow faster. And we see a glut of sensational stories that goes “viral” on the social media — German man cutting possessions, including the car in half, for his ex-wife; Vietnamese-Australian man having a hilarious name Phuc Dat Bich; or a wolf pack marching along the snow through following rank – they propagate like wildfire in the prairie. To the extent these stories are entertaining, awe-inspiring, and have “viral” value, they are downright lies. The blame primarily rests on the online media, sometimes even the mainstream ones, which in a stiff competition with a plethora of other outlets to increase revenue through online ads, broadcast specious stories without a careful investigation of the sources. The users, not casting a shadow of a doubt, are conned into believing the crap.

With a new addition to online marketing, native advertising — promotion and selling of a product in the guise of a news story — it has become more difficult for unsuspecting users to differentiate between real news and advertisement. A recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education has found that even digital-savvy students have trouble judging the credibility of online news and distinguishing advertisements from news articles.

A market research company — eMarketer — forecasts a 17.4% increase in digital advertisement spending. These statistics signal a frightening time ahead with an overflow of click-bait journalism and poorly sourced news stories feeding into the lowest common denominator, and a subsequent global crisis of authenticity, ethics, and trust. Unless the techgiants, Facebook and Google, honestly work to control false news stories as they have promised, such a bleak future is a high possibility.

Despite having a slow start in the digitalization process, Bangladesh is quickly catching up with the rest of the world. According to the BTRC’s February 2017 data, the number of internet subscribers in the country has reached 67.2 million, with a staggering increase of 466,000 users in just a month (January-February). If we take these government statistics at face value and further assume that 80% of internet subscribers use Facebook in the country, the number of Facebook users stands at roughly 54 million. These data may not reveal the number of unique internet subscribers and therefore Facebook users, still it does point to the fact that this media has expanded widely in Bangladesh.

The majority of these Facebook users treat this social media as synonymous with the internet, which makes the aforesaid situation doubly perilous for the country. The young have not been able to reap the benefits of information and knowledge that the internet offers. Instead, they tend to indulge in a new fad of celebrity worshipping; they often follow groups and pages that brim with propaganda news and views and read pretentious and dreadful online portals that offer them cheap thrills. Be it Saurav Ganguli criticizing the ICC for conspiring against Bangladesh in the WC quarter-finals or a photo of Tibetan mass-death run as Burmese killing of the Rohingyas — not to deny any unfair treatment or atrocities here — these stories are demonstrably false and hence, lies. Yet, such stories have the emotional appeal to excite the young, to enrage and to provoke them into committing offenses ranging from digital indecency to mob violence. So when a Muslim faction at Nasirnagar of Brahmanbaria was incited by a cyber café owner over a “blasphemous” picture allegedly posted on Facebook by a Hindu fisherman, the zealots developed a new group psychology of impulsiveness, irritability, and empowerment typical of a mob. They exhibited their herd mentality by descending into collective hysteria.

Where do we go from here? Counterfeit news and news portals must be stopped. No, banning social media to control misinformation and politicization of information will not help the cause in the long run. We must not alienate ourselves in this digital world or deny ourselves the multifarious benefits that social media provide. The masses gleefully use this democratic platform to express their opinions, no matter how egregious or irrelevant those are. Banning this platform will only cultivate a sense of powerlessness and unfreedom. What we need now is more education and research initiatives from the government to popularize the internet, beyond the social media, in order to create an informed citizenry.

On the users’ part, the overworked phrase, “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet”, should come to the fore again. As digital citizens, we should be digitally literate and decent, take online news and views with a healthy grain of salt, scrutinize and verify the authenticity of emotionally and politically charged stories, think critically and self-critique our preconceived beliefs to protect ourselves from lies, misinformation and mischievous propaganda.

Sharif Mahmudspecializes in metropolitan planning, with particular emphasis on smart growth and transportation.

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