Generally Speaking

The hidden cost of free news

While many of us enjoy reading free news on the Internet, we must be cautious of fake and crafty news

The hidden cost of free news

Around ten days before Donald Trump became the president of the United States, a very interesting piece of news was published on a website which looked like the CNN website. In fact, as I write this, the news link is still active and you can check it out here:

The report said that the social-media website Twitter had decided to suspend Trump's Twitter account. The report quoted a Twitter spokesperson as saying, "Twitter will not tolerate active users whose only message is one of hate, racism and intolerance. Donald Trump may have been elected to the White House, but at least someone can stand up to him for the American people and say, 'No Mr. Trump, we are not with you',... We have no choice but to delete his account."

The news report went on to quote Trump as saying that Twitter's plan was laughable. The report quoted someone close to Trump as saying that the president-elect, which Trump was at that point of time, had already created another Twitter account. The report further said, "That same source also said that if Twitter shuts down that account, he will simply keep making more new accounts."

I read the report and thought it was big news. But later when I googled for this news, I couldn't find it anywhere else except for this one particular website on which I had happened to read it. Only then did I realise that I had been taken for a ride by a fake-news website. These websites deliberately publish hoaxes and propaganda in order to drive web traffic.

As Daniel Levitin writes in A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics, "On the Web, there is no central authority to prevent people from making claims that are untrue, no way to shut down an offending site other than going through the costly procedure of obtaining a court injunction." This allows fake-news websites to get away with it, even after spreading hoaxes like the one I just discussed above.

In fact, there are other cases where the news is not a hoax, but the spin around it is all wrong. Recently, I came across a headline, which said, "Big admission by Modi government, minister says unemployment rate rising in India." I clicked and found out that one of the junior ministers had essentially provided some unemployment data in response to a question that had been asked in the Rajya Sabha.

As per these data, the unemployment rate in India was at 5 per cent, having gone up from 4.9 per cent earlier. The minister was simply stating a fact, which I was already aware of. Also, how different is a rate of unemployment of 4.9 per cent from a rate of unemployment of 5 per cent? Not much. So, where the big-admission bit came about is a question worth asking.

The need to be the first one to break the news is a very important point in the existence of digital media. As Levitin writes, "Many sources have emerged on the Web that do not hold to the same standards and in some cases, they can break news stories and do so accurately before the more traditional and cautious media do."

Further, Levitin writes, "Many of us learned of Michael Jackson's death from before the traditional media reported it. TMZ was willing to run the story based on less evidence than were Los Angeles Times or NBC. In that particular case, TMZ turned out to be right, but you can't count on that sort of reporting."

And that is something worth thinking about. When we don't pay for the news that we consume, does it come with a cost attached to it?

Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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