Editorial | Fake or real?
The Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies has declared that there was no earthquake in Jamaica on Friday morning. Charged with the responsibility of earthquake monitoring and seismic research, the unit moved swiftly to shut down reports of a tremor and put the nation at ease, amidst widespread social media reports.
Placing the quake’s epicentre in St Ann’s Bay, St Ann, the social media reports attracted comments from dozens of people, many of whom reported that they felt the tremor. Responding to the post, folks in Portmore, St Catherine said their beds moved during the event. Others predicted a tsunami and the comments served to cast a pall over the country, which was already bracing for storm-like conditions.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it does not take much to create episodes of collective fear around threats to a society. News of danger or impending disasters tends to get people edgy wondering what’s next, and can throw the entire country into panic mode.
In recent days, there have been multiple prank calls about bomb threats, causing unease and creating panic among students, parents and school administrators, and workers and generally causing fear. The police have reported that, in a week, more than 80 institutions, including schools, hospitals, and businesses, have been targeted by pranksters.
So the report of another earthquake so soon after a major 5.6 tremor last month would obviously create some unease in the society. As more people come to rely on social media for their news, it must be understood that much of social media news has not been authenticated nor put through the professional rigours dictated by media guidelines to satisfy fairness and accuracy.
Yet, the rise of various social media platforms has revolutionised the way people get information and how they share this information. Everyone with a telephone is a potential reporter, and it is very easy to publish a photo or comment on social media. But, have they done the necessary checks to ensure accuracy and fairness? Admittedly, persons who are not media-savvy may not know how to check for accuracy and to spot agenda-setting information, and it is their inability to separate false news from genuine news which leaves them susceptible to misinformation.
There is always danger in sharing information that has not been authenticated. One of the dark sides of social media is that fake news and misinformation can be rapidly disseminated, and misleading information helps to fuel fear and panic. There is an inherent responsibility for consumers of news to scrutinise information for credibility before sharing it.
In societies, when officialdom fails to communicate essential facts and offer updates about actions which will affect the lives of citizens or will impact the decisions they make, the consequences can be dire. Often, these information gaps are filled by persons who are not in possession of the full facts but, with conjecture and innuendo, they come up with information which, at first blush, seems credible.
Another implication of fake news is that people with an agenda can do harm to other people’s reputations. To protect oneself, it seems that the first duty is to seek out authentic news sources. The other responsible action would be to refrain from sharing information unless the sources have been checked and found to be credible and accurate.