New BBC research shows nationalism is driving the spread of fake news

People in India are sharing fake news stories with nationalistic messages for ‘nation building’ purposes, with consolidation of national identity taking precedence over the need to fact-check a story, new BBC research has found. The finding comes from the first published study analysing the spread of fake news from the perspective of ordinary citizens. The report examines networks within Twitter and analyses how people are sharing on encrypted messaging apps, after users gave the BBC unprecedented access to their phones. This research comes as part of the BBC Beyond Fake News project, a huge new international anti-disinformation initiative, which launches today.

Key findings from the report are:

  • In India people are reluctant to share messages which they think might incite violence, but feel duty bound to share nationalistic messages. Fake news stories about India’s progress, Hindu power and revival of lost Hindu glory are being shared widely without any attempt at fact-checking. In sharing these messages, people feel like they are nation building.
  • A sense of duty is also seen to be behind the spread of fake news in Kenya and Nigeria. However, rather than being motivated by a duty to ‘nation build’, people are more likely to feel duty bound to share breaking news just in case it is true and could affect those in their networks. A sense of duty to democratise access to information is also seen to be at play here.
  • The report suggests overlap between fake news and pro-Modi political activity in India. Using big data analysis of networks within Twitter the BBC has found that in India, left-wing sources of fake news are only loosely aligned, if at all, whilst the right wing sources of fake news are very closely linked together. This allows right-leaning fake news to spread faster and wider than left-leaning fake news.
  • Fake news is being unwittingly spread by people across India, Kenya, and Nigeria, as they forward messages in the hope that someone else will check the truth of the story for them.

Whilst nationalism is driving the spread of fake news in India, the research tells a different story in Kenya and Nigeria. There, fake news stories that get shared largely reflect national anxieties and aspirations, with scams related to money and technology contributing to an estimated third of fake news stories in WhatsApp conversations in Kenya. In Nigeria, stories relating to terrorism and the army are also widely shared within WhatsApp.

In Kenya and Nigeria people are consuming mainstream media sources and known sources of fake news in equal amounts, even though the public’s desire to know the original source of messages is far greater than in India. In the African markets, people are very concerned about not falling behind on the news. Being seen as in the know has great social cachet. These factors all allow fake stories to slip through the cracks in private networks, even if users have the best intentions of verifying the truth.

Dr Santanu Chakrabarti, Head of Audience Research, BBC World Service, says: “At the heart of this research is the question of why ordinary people are sharing fake news, even while they claim to be worried about the way fake stories spread. This report combines in-depth qualitative and ethnographic techniques with digital network analysis and Big Data techniques to explore the fake news phenomenon in India, Kenya, and Nigeria from multiple angles. This project is one of the first in these countries to properly understand fake news as a technologically driven social phenomenon. I hope these findings will add nuance and depth to the conversation around fake news, and that researchers, analysts, and journalists will use the findings as a spur for further investigation.”

Jamie Angus, Director BBC World Service Group, says: “Whilst most discussion in the media has focused on ‘fake news’ in the West, this piece of research gives strong evidence that a serious set of problems are emerging in the rest of the world where the idea of nation-building is trumping the truth when it comes to sharing stories on social media. The BBC’s Beyond Fake News initiative marks a decisive step in our commitment to tackling the spread of disinformation, and this research provides invaluable insights to aid this work.”

Other findings:

Facebook usage
In Nigeria and Kenya, Facebook users consume fake and legitimate news sources equally and are not necessarily concerned about which is which. In India the research shows that once again the case is different, with polarised groups of people on Facebook either engaging with legitimate news sources or recognised fake news sources, rarely both. Our research also showed that those who are most interested in the known sources of fake news are also more interested in politics and political parties.

Generational difference
Young people in Kenya and Nigeria are less focused on tribal and religious allegiances than the generations before them, and so are less likely to be driven by these identities when sharing fake news. In India however, our study suggests young people are identifying along nationalistic lines, and this is driving their sharing behaviour as much as it is the older generation.

Images over words
This piece of research suggests that a significant amount of fake stories being shared are not written articles, but images and memes. The research explains in depth how the nature of social media platforms, combined with the challenge people face in coping with the amount of information online, leads to the spread of fake news being carried through visual media.

This report came on the same day that Facebook, Google and Twitter are to appear together to talk about the impact of fake news on their platforms.

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