Combatting fake news

by | February 17, 2020

NTU students launch campaign targetted at WhatsApp in Singapore.

The team from Sure Anot: (from left to right) Vernette Didier Chia, 23; Lee Yun Ting, 25; 
Kelley Lim, 23; and Rachel Anne Chew, 23.

In response to the increase in the slew of fake news messages on WhatsApp, a team of four final-year communication undergraduates from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has launched a campaign called Sure Anot to encourage Singaporeans aged 50 to 64 to join in the fight against fake news on WhatsApp. The campaign is the first anti-fake news campaign in Singapore that is targeted at WhatsApp – the most used social messaging platform amongst Singaporeans, according to digital marketing company Media One Marketing.

Shared Rachel Anne Chew, 23, from the Sure Anot team, “We chose to do this initiative because we realised that fake news spread on WhatsApp was rampant. After talking to friends as well as recounting our own personal experiences, we realised that many of us have received countless of fake news messages on WhatsApp group chats. However, although this was the case, these fake news messages would usually be ignored, and nobody in the group chat would point out the need to verify these messages or even, develop some sort of healthy scepticism towards messages that they receive.

“Additionally, after further research on the topic, we came to understand the severe consequences that fake news can have on societal fabric such as in Hong Kong and lynchings in India. Therefore, we realised that it is important to raise awareness of this topic and the need to be wary of the messages that is coming in on WhatsApp.”

The team also added that most recently, with the Wuhan virus outbreak, fake news messages related to the novel coronavirus have been circulating on WhatsApp and other platforms widely. Rumours such as an individual dying of the Wuhan virus at a shopping mall in Singapore as well as Woodlands MRT station being closed due to a suspected case of the virus, were being circulated online. Both rumours were later addressed by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Transport, respectively, to be untrue.

“For an increasing number of Singaporeans, WhatsApp has become the main gateway for news. They come across news items shared by friends and in chat groups they belong to. Since WhatsApp is a closed platform – messages being exchanged can only be seen by those involved in the exchange – it is harder for researchers and policy people to track what fake news are being spread around in these exchanges,” said Associate Professor Edson Castro Tandoc Jr from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

In recent years, WhatsApp has been implementing restrictions on the app in order to stop the spread of misinformation. However, with the app’s end-to-end encryption network, WhatsApp and independent fact-checkers are not able to access the messages, photos and videos that users are sharing on the app. “Everybody is vulnerable to fake news that is being spread on the platform,” said Assistant Professor Mohamed Elmie Nekmat of the National University of Singapore (NUS). “But we should reach out more to older adults who use WhatsApp. More intergenerational efforts where the young step up to assist the elderly in telling apart fake messages on WhatsApp itself will be helpful.”

In a pre-campaign survey conducted by the Sure Anot team with 178 respondents between the ages of 50 to 64 years old, it found that 90 percent of respondents within this age group have received a fake news message on WhatsApp before. However, almost half of respondents said that they do not know how to fact-check. Through the campaign, Sure Anot encourages older adults to perform a three-step routine every time they receive a news message on WhatsApp. The routine, titled “Be Safe, Be Sure”, is targeted at older adults who may find performing fact-checking steps online, either difficult or troublesome.

The routine consists of three steps:

  1. Don’t Forward First – The first step of the routine encourages older adults to not forward news messages immediately, after receiving it on WhatsApp. Seventy-seven percent of respondents from the survey indicated that they have forwarded a news message on WhatsApp, while more than ⅓ of respondents said that upon receiving a forwarded WhatsApp news message, they would immediately forward it to their friends and family.
  2. Ask “Sure Anot?” – The second step of the routine encourages older adults to raise a doubt or question the person who had sent them the forwarded news message. Upon receiving a forwarded news message on WhatsApp, only 11 percent of respondents indicated that they would respond to ask the sender for more information. However, through qualitative responses, the Sure Anot team found that respondents become aware that their mindless forwarding behaviour is wrong, when called out by their family and friends.
  3. Check Ah! – The final step of the routine, which encourages older adults to perform the fact-checking steps, is targetted at older adults who may be more confident in their technological abilities. The routine introduces two pre-fact-checking steps, which complement existing anti-fake news campaigns that educate the public on how to perform fact-checking. This allows older adults, regardless of their technological abilities, to fight fake news on WhatsApp as well.

“We realised that older adults may feel overwhelmed when asked to perform technologically-advanced fact-checking steps such as reverse image search,” said Lee Yun Ting, 25, team leader of Sure Anot. “Alongside fact-checking, it is also important to equip them with steps that are simpler to perform, but also help to fight fake news spread.”

On top of educating Singaporean older adults on adopting the three-step routine, the team has also created WhatsApp and Facebook groups where they share false reports that have been debunked. Most of their clarifications are shared from their collaborator, Black Dot Research, an independent fact-checking platform in Singapore.

Rachel added: “Recently, in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, there was a news message sent in the group chat stating that in order to prevent the virus, one should drink more hot water. The sender then said that with the news message circulating in his family group chats, he was worried that his relatives may overdo it and hurt themselves. From this account, we came to recognise the true impacts that fake news messages may have not only on society, but on individuals as well.”






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