By now we have all experienced it. First, you get a ringing notification on your phone. You click the bait. You read the link. But somehow the story about the latest shocking development just does not make sense. The person in the video clip attached does not seem to really be that government minister after all. Or the details of the sudden, freak death of the wife of a state official just does not seem to add up. Some would dig further and discover they have fallen for fake news. Others, less vigilant, will simply click “forward” or “share.”
The experience recounted by President Anthony Carmona last Saturday is hardly a novel one but that does not make it any less distressing. The President said the day his wife Reema received an international award, a rumour spread on social media that she had died. We can only imagine the impact of such a thing: instead of receiving congratulatory phone calls about an award, the President received dire queries from family members as to his wife’s well-being.
It is a mark of how far-reaching this issue has become when even the Head of State is affected. And the Carmonas are not alone. Tourism Minister Shamfa Cudjoe was recently associated with an online video that had nothing to do with her. In her case, she blamed politics. But the technology that allows social media abuse is notoriously murky: it can be difficult to pin down the entities that are truly behind a website or a profile.
Use of social media to spread misinformation and to smear or mislead is a manifestation of a deeper problem. It is now becoming increasingly apparent that internet abuse has become endemic and dangerous to our well-being.
There is a well-documented dark side of the internet. Locally, there have been many cases of internet dating sites — both straight and gay — being used to lure victims. It is also well known that the internet can be used to bully individuals, sometimes to the point of death. A Guyanese policeman recently committed suicide after he was outed as gay against his will on social media. And then there are the credit card and fraud scams in which people obtain personal information to commit theft.
These are obviously instances of modern information communications technology being put to insidious use. They demand better infrastructure and regulatory frameworks to combat them. But they also draw attention away from the more banal ways in which social media can turn harmful. Fake news is a case in point.
The spread of misinformation on the internet is only made possible by impulses which deny reason and which convince users to switch off critical faculties. It is hardly surprising that palpably false clickbait can spread like wildfire when we consider just how addictive social media is.
According to a 2013 Kleiner Perkins report, people have 150 mobile phone sessions a day. A more recent study by an online platform recently determined people touch their phone a whopping 2,617 times a day.
This is hardly surprising when we consider social media has been deliberately designed to be addictive — a fact noted by tech gurus such as Justin Rosenstein. The more we are hooked, the more those behind social media benefit.
Yet, while social media has exploded, we are yet to fully appreciate its impact on us and on our children.
Of course, all tools can be used to do wrong. But recent events such as the allegations of an online influence campaign during the 2016 US presidential election have heightened focus on the matter.
The question is: now that a Pandora’s box has been opened, how do we temper expectations or adjust behaviour? We must formulate guidelines, policies and practices to prevent the great dream of the internet from becoming an all-out nightmare.