Monday 9 July 2018

Thum's down: What do you do when your stupid friend shares fake news on WhatsApp?

So I have this stupid friend.

He is in my WhatsApp group of former secondary school classmates. He has also sold me insurance. You know the type.

Last week, he posted in the WhatsApp group a link to a news article with the headline “Taiwan: MH370 pilot mysteriously resurfaces almost two years after his flight vanished over China Sea”.

There was even a picture of a man in a hospital bed.

Right away, I suspected this was fake news.

In the first place, if the news were true, I would have seen it all over the place and not just in my WhatsApp group of former secondary school classmates.

In the second place, the Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared more than four years ago, not two years ago. So it wasn’t just fake news — it was two-year-old fake news.

In the third place, the source of the story is a website called World News Daily Report. I went to its homepage and the top news story was “Allergic man rushed to hospital after girlfriend spread peanut butter on her vagina”.

Other so-called news included “Elderly woman accused of training her 65 cats to steal from neighbours” and “Boston: Members of midget crime gang suspected of 55 break-ins”.

Just by glancing at those headlines, anyone should be able to tell that the website is not exactly the most credible.

But like many people tend to do, my stupid friend couldn’t be bothered to check the news source and impulsively shared the fake news in the WhatsApp group because he felt it was so urgent that his former secondary school classmates know that the MH370 pilot had been found.

I wanted to reply: “You’re an idiot! It’s stupid people like you who are causing the spread of fake news around the world.”

But I didn’t because I value the few friends I have despite this one’s stupidity.

And it was a good thing I didn’t. The next day I learnt that you don’t have to be as stupid as my friend to unintentionally spread fake news.

Remember Dr Thum Ping Tjin? He’s the guy who was questioned by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam for six hours during the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods hearing earlier this year.

Last Monday, he shared on social media a very old editorial cartoon contrasting how the reception to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the US Congress in 1985 was reported differently by The Straits Times (“standing ovation”) and International Herald Tribune (“polite applause”).

Dr Thum commented:
Hmmm... now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?
Sounds to me like Dr Thum was implying that The Straits Times made up the standing ovation to mislead the sheeple of Singapore about Mr Lee’s “vaunted global reputation”.

Then someone posted a YouTube video of Mr Lee getting a standing O from the US Congress in 1985.

Just as ST reported.

So like Inception but with fake news, Dr Thum was spreading fake news about the spreading of fake news.

He quickly backtracked:
Thank you for the comments, everyone! Lots of misunderstandings here so I'll do my best to explain. This isn't an example of "fake news", it's an illustration of subjectivity. Thanks to two intrepid commenters, we have all the sources at hand and it's clear that both articles were accurate but what the reporters chose to highlight leads readers to different impressions. In my original post, I was not implying that either newspaper was reporting "fake news" but asking a question about how different perspectives (or lack thereof) have affected our understanding of the past. The ST and WaPo reported the event accurately, but the reporters drew very different conclusions, due to subjective experience. The WaPo reporter had likely seen many addresses with far greater attendance and applause, while the ST reporter undoubtedly wished to emphasise LKY's reception and standing, reflecting Singapore's stature in the world. This leads one to wonder, as I stated above, just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY's vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, which is incentivised to report news positively (not inaccurately, but positively) in the days when there were few or no alternative news sources. If we get all our news from only one source, then the inherent subjectivity of that source would inevitably affect our understanding of events. This does not ascribe malicious intent but merely raises the danger of reliance upon a single set of sources that reflects a single set of perspectives. Every event has as many different perspectives as the people who witness it, and the truth is subjective. As I've said before, reasonable people can experience the same event and draw very different (even opposing) conclusions. That's what makes history so much fun!
Cool story, bro.

And this guy is a legit academic. I mean, he has a Dr in front of his name and everything.

So I shouldn’t be too hard on my stupid friend for falling prey to fake news if a PhD holder could also be a victim.

Any of us could be, too.

Anyway, another less stupid friend in the WhatsApp group replied to the post about the MH370 pilot: “Fake news. 2 yrs ago reported already.”

My stupid friend’s response: “Alamak.”

At least he didn’t claim it was an “illustration of subjectivity”.

I bought insurance from this guy.

- Published in The New Paper, 9 July 2018