Anatomy of incorrect information

It hasn’t yet been a week since Delhi implemented the odd-even policy on its roads, but analyses abound about the efficacy of the pilot scheme. While the believers are vociferously trying to prove that this is a step in the right direction, the critics are going to lengths to discredit the scheme by highlighting the cons (both real and imagined). Two days ago a fake photograph of an over-crowded Rajiv Chowk metro station went viral on social media. With this photograph people were trying to prove the impracticality of odd-even scheme claiming that the alternate transport (Delhi metro) was incapable of handling the additional load of commuters. Seeing this picture on the Facebook and Twitter feeds of many people, including those of famous journalists, led me to thinking about a framework to reason out why some bits of information gain so much popularity as opposed to others.

Depicting the veracity of information on one axis and the ease of diffusion on the other, it is trivial to observe that information, whether accurate or inaccurate, that gets diffused widely and quickly is what catches people’s attention. While the popularity of accurate knowledge is self-explanatory, the anatomy of incorrect information that grabs eyeballs merits a discussion.

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The three factors upon which the transmission of information depends on are content, platform, and people.

Firstly, the information deluge that we are faced with on a daily basis has drastically reduced people’s attention span. Therefore, not many take the trouble to verify authenticity of the claims they make, particularly when these claims are related to current events or to celebrities. Hence, it can be confidently said that most of the statements about the recent terrorist attack on an airbase in Pathankot will get transmitted irrespective of whether they hold water or not. Furthermore, the more simplistically such claims are made, the easier they are to understand and the higher the chance that they will gain ground fast. This brings us to the next sections that explain how and why even inaccurate information gets diffused quickly.

With the constant struggle of getting better TRP ratings than their competitors, the 24-hour news channels on television are always in a hurry to report lest the news becomes stale. Take, for instance, the fact that most of the national news channels reported wrong results of the recently concluded assembly elections in Bihar. Gone are the days of detailed blogs and op-ed arguments when it comes to riding the public opinion. With platforms like Facebook and Twitter, publicly expressing opinions about all that is current news has become a fad and a necessity. Not many care to verify or give evidence for the claims that they make by re-posting/re-tweeting information from others. These platforms have also become the primary source of news for many.

Lastly, people are an important ingredient in proliferation of information. Certain ideas find currency with certain kinds of people. People are likely to propagate ideas that they identify with or that reaffirm their existing beliefs, prejudices, and world-views. Last November, TV channels purportedly reported wrong results of Bihar elections owing to their inclination to justify their own exit polls, which had also predicted incorrect outcomes. A majority of Republicans in the US still doubt the legitimacy of Obama’s American birth certificate.

I, for one, am very likely to believe and spread claims that faith in a religion does not make people any happier than atheists.

Nidhi Gupta is a Programme Manager at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @nidhi1902.

One Response to Anatomy of incorrect information

  1. ashok panikkar January 20, 2016 at 4:37 pm #

    Thank you, Nidhi.

    This is useful: Three factors that influence transmission of information content, platform and people.

    As you say, while this has always been a problem with the traditional media, the new media has exacerbated this problem.
    ashok

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