Of WhatsApp, Group Polarization, and Fake News

Last year, during the time of Delhi election, a message claiming that Arvind Kejriwal was accused of rape and was arrested in 1987 came in my family WhatsApp group. Well, it took me a single google search (nearly about 5 seconds) to find out that it was fake. Even when it was so easy to find out the truth, the fact is that someone shared it in our group and someone else in our group must have forwarded it to some other group. And that is how the instant messaging service has become one of the largest propagators of fake news. But how does it happen? What is the reason people believe in fake news?

Our emotional responses play a very important role in our decision making, so every time we see a claim we may react in a wrong way in the heat of the moment because of our emotions. As Tim Harford writes in How To Make The World Add Up,

We often find ways to dismiss evidence that we don’t like. And the opposite is true, too: when evidence seems to support our preconceptions, we are less likely to look closely too closely for flaws.

The more extreme the emotional reaction, the harder it is to think straight.”

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A recent example was the covid-19 pandemic, when people started sharing all the information about the virus and precautions that one needs to take, many of which were untrue. Even though it was in good faith as people wanted to help each other out in the pandemic, their decision was not at all wise.

Same is true for political news as well. However, there is no good faith in it. As Harford writes,

Of all the emotional responses we might have, the most politically relevant are motivated by partisanship. People with a strong political affiliation want to be on the right side of things.

We all have internet access and political parties take advantage of that using their advanced IT-Cells. As Vivek kaul writes,

Producing fake news is cheap. All it requires is a literate person, who has a mobile phone with an internet connection. This has made things significantly easy for people who want to spread propaganda or run an agenda or just want to have some fun.

This also explains why WhatsApp gets filled with political fake news especially during elections. These fake messages are generated by the parties and propagated by common people who are supporters of the party.

The fact that there are several groups on WhatsApp makes things worse. Groups often becomes polarized even when all the people are of the same ideology. As Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein writes in Noise,

Information plays a major role. If most people favour a severe punishment, then group will hear many arguments in favour of severe punishment – and fewer arguments the other way. If group members are listening to one another, they will shift in the direction of dominant tendency, rendering the group more unified, more confident, and more extreme. And if people care about their reputation within the group, they will shift in the direction of the dominant tendency, which will also produce polarization.

So basically, fake messages in WhatsApp groups are the result of two phenomenons: wishful thinking and group polarization. This is what also happens with political ideologies in general. Once you choose an ideology, you not only become more extreme in any debate in order to prove the other side wrong but also within the ideology you become more extreme in part because of self satisfaction or if you have any other advantages (for example, a lower level politician may want to make a place in his/her party).

But then no one is immune to his/her emotional responses as it is a basic trait of a human. So one can always try to look into the details of the claim made before sharing it with others. What we all can do is to question the claim and think about it for a few seconds.

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