Fake news is like smoking—it’s slowly killing us

I was annoyed at first. A relative in Vancouver shared a video through WhatsApp: a woman claims to have evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are a part of Bill Gates’s sinister plan to control the minds of everyone.

The woman would turn her phone camera to a computer, where she plays her secretly taped video. Unsurprisingly, the supposed Bill Gates did not look or sound like Bill Gates. The video was so amateurishly produced that it appeared as if it were a high school joke.

I then became concerned. My relative told me that he would not vaccinate from COVID-19—because of his “research”.

My friends and I often laughed at the absurdness and hilarity of fake news. But I cannot laugh anymore—fake news has become personal.

Why does fake news exist?

Fake news exists for three main reasons.

Firstly, fake news is a business—and conspiracy theories sell. Authors produce conspiratorial content because many people are addicted to reading it. Authors of fake news are well experienced in drawing our attention—with sensationalist articles and videos to provoke our interest. Our viewership means advertising revenue for them.

Secondly, fake news can be an effective political tactic. Fake news can sometimes be more catchy and intuitive than the truth. There are thus politicians and special interest groups who use false information to defend their positions.

Thirdly, fake news is a choice weapon of adversaries against liberal democracies. They want to influence our elections. They want sympathizers for their cause. They want to dismantle trust in our civil society, which is the bedrock of everything.

How can fake news harm us?

In a way, it may not matter if a person believes if the world is flat. Or if the Apollo 11 moon landing was fake. Or if an online furniture store is trafficking children.

But we would be foolish to consider fake news as entirely harmless. Examples abound.

For ethnic and religious minorities, fake news has resulted in their harassment. Asians are wrongly supposed for their complicity in spreading COVID-19—and they are being assaulted in Canada and elsewhere in consequence. Abroad, we hear about false accusations against Christians in Pakistan and Muslims in India.

Fake news is eroding trust in democratic institutions. We need not be arrogant over less developed countries—we can look closer to home. The U.S. Capitol Hill insurrection happened because some people believed that the presidential election was a sham. Five people died.

As what inspired me to write this article, herd immunity against COVID-19 is essential for our return to normalcy. But we all know someone who has chosen to not vaccinate based upon unfounded theories. Many Canadians remain misinformed about the vaccines.

How can we confront the challenge of fake news?

We must accept that fake news is here to stay. The post-truth era has arrived. Fake news will exist, and even thrive, under our rights to freedom of speech. At the same time, we would want to avoid ‘anti-fake news’ legislation as that of authoritarian regimes—Canada should avoid that slippery slope.

Instead, we should manage fake news as we manage smoking.

Cigarette packs have cautionary labels and packaging. Social media companies should do more likewise. WhatsApp now tells users when a message has been forwarded many times. Twitter has introduced warning labels on misleading tweets. These subtle, yet powerful markers can help.

Cigarette packs are not displayed on grocery shelves. Likewise, traditional media companies should stop using clickbait advertising for revenue. It is ironic to find links to questionable “sponsored stories” on ‘real news’ websites, such as Global News.

Smoking hazards are taught to children. Likewise, our children need the help of teachers to discern the reliability of information. Critical thinking will help them distinguish facts and fiction.

Finally, we need to win hearts, not arguments. Ridicule and arguments seldom persuade a smoker to quit. We need to lovingly steer our friends and family toward the right direction.

I am not trying to be alarmist, but we must act quickly. Fake news is like smoking—it’s slowly killing us.

An edited version of this article was published in the Toronto Star on May 3, 2021.

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