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The arrival of digital media platforms has opened newer avenues for communication and sharing of news. However, this easy access and widespread reach has also come across as a double-edged-sword leveraged regularly by fake news peddlers. With more than 450 million users, India has one of the largest population of Internet users in the world. Out of these, 241 million are present on Facebook and over 200 million have access to WhatsApp. Add to it another hundreds of millions present on platforms like YouTube and Twitter, and we are looking at uncontrollable waves of information which can easily be twisted to suit vested interests.

It is not uncommon any more to see unverified and twisted versions of stories going viral on digital and electronic media platforms, causing social anxiety, unrest, and even political upheavals. Whether it be the US President tweeting about ‘Hindus and Muslims clashing over Kashmir since thousands of years’ or activists passing off old videos of mob violence as recent developments, there is always plenty of fake content going around.

The truth about fake news

Evidently, the age-old rumour mills have also evolved with the times. Fake news often begins with half-truths, fudged numbers, photoshopped images, and doctored videos – and news operators make use of technology and the principles of marketing and advertising to their advantage. Such fake content feeds on people’s hunger for novelty, spice and horror. Research shows that false news is 70% more likely to be shared on social media out of sheer curiosity than actual facts.

Years ago, when WhatsApp revolutionized social communication, a majority of first-time smartphone users were quite vulnerable as they lacked awareness about false emails and forward messages that they tirelessly passed on. However, the consumers of today have become more conscious to the existence of fake news and online frauds. There are fact-finding companies that try and filter out fake content by using automated filters and data analysing tools. Social media giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google are partnering with these fact-checking organizations to prevent circulation of fake news on their platforms. Recently, many Facebook users came across posts that had been blotted out with a title suggesting that it was fake and had been blocked after cross-verification with trusted sources.

Fake news and influence on online consumer behaviour

Users are today conscious of what they forward and are beginning to question everything they read online. According to a survey, only 2.7% of Indian Internet users trusted the information circulated through social media sources such as WhatsApp and Facebook. However, the survey also pointed out that 40% of users believed in news that had supporting data or evidence and 34% trusted information coming from credible links such as formal news channels. Apart from the small digital savvy population, others have no knowledge or awareness about the existence of fact-checking organizations.

This manipulative news trend can prove to be destructive in the corporate world. There are often concerted efforts at bringing down a business by letting loose a mixture of actual and fake news directed at it. We have seen in recent years how fake news has been impacting the aviation sector in India. The rumours related to an impending economic crisis or any industry vertical, or a social unrest, repeatedly wipe out hundreds of billions of investors wealth on the stock exchange. In the same way, it is also possible to positively manipulate public sentiment towards a brand or product by sharing misleading information about it. A majority of consumers are not only easily influenced but also readily lose their trust on a brand if they feel cheated without applying much thought to it.

The social media savvy consumer of the millennium is quality conscious of the products or services they avail. Global survey data suggests that more than 59% of consumers would stop buying from a brand if they came across fake content circulated by them. However, 64% were better informed and said that their loyalty towards a brand was based on truthfulness and genuine quality rather than influenced by fake news.

In conclusion

Businesses all over the world are now well-versed with the fact that their brand value is vulnerable to fake news. The onus to curb fake news lies jointly on the corporate and other stakeholders such as the digital/electronic media platforms and technology developers. Sustained consumer awareness campaigns must be urgently run to tackle the menace, especially in a digitally emerging country like India. Businesses have now started working with various fact-checking platforms and organizations to ensure debunking of fake information as soon as it emerges. The government has made rules and regularly shares advisories to the social media giants, placing restrictions on circulation of information at times, to prevent fake news from going viral. Further, the latest technologies, and frequent algorithm changes are being made by social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to create increasingly fool-proof platforms. In a democratically accessible digital world, the creation of fake news can’t be completely prevented. However, dedicated, coordinated and well-informed efforts by all stakeholders can minimize the potential damage caused by such acts.