The online hoax phenomenon and how to address it
Modern media and communications technology are connecting people across the global village, facilitating the dissemination and sharing of information without any of the previous obstacles posed by space and time. The demand for open communications and the concurrent flood of information, however, increasingly require us to be able to think critically and verify the information we receive.
If we do not take the time to check the sources of the information we receive online, we might easily believe, for example, that Romani people receive higher welfare payments than anybody else in the Czech Republic because of their nationality, that the number of Romani minority members here has doubled in just 14 years, or that the Czech actor Jan Werich warned against Islam back in 1938. With the aid of leading experts in the field, therefore, the magazine Romano vod'i is mapping a phenomenon that is part of today's flood of information, that of online HOAXES.
This originally English-language term means a message, the content of which is false or startling, that constitutes a fabrication, fraud, misrepresentation or prank. English linguist Robert Nares (1753-1829) inferred the probable origin of the term in the older word "hocus", which means an illusion or a trick.
This phenomenon was not born with the discovery of the Internet or online social networking, but is a new form of the urban legends and rumors that have come to life from time to time ever since the Middle Ages. The Internet and social networks, however, provide exceptionally fertile ground for such false messages to be used as a tool for manipulating public opinion.
The dangers flowing from this kind of manipulation were demonstrated in the Czech Republic in 2012 by the example of a 15-year-old boy from the town of Břeclav who severely injured himself falling from the upper story of a building and who then attempted to explain his injuries by inventing the story that Romani people had assaulted him, and the consequence of his lie was not just an anti-Romani hate campaign by many media outlets nationwide, but also an enraged mob of 3 000 assembling on the town square. The phenomenon of such alarming or deceptive communications has long been studied by Josef Džubák, who specializes in hoaxes as the operator of the website www.hoax.cz.
Džubák points out that hoaxes are a broad category of phenomena, ranging from harmless jokes to extensive fraud. One particular category is so-called phishing, or the effort to tempt Internet users to provide private information such as bank account numbers, birthdates or passwords for the purpose of misusing that information.
When using the Internet, Džubák recommends being appropriately cautious when communicating with strangers. While he acknowledges that almost anybody can be easily fooled, he believes the basis for online safety is to verify dubious information and not to blindly disseminate it.
Hoaxes make connections that can be significant in the context of more vulnerable or less well-known groups such as refugees or Roma. Disinformation has the potential to bolster prejudices or stereotypes and to cause panic among members of mainstream society, and even panic based on a hoax can have absolutely real consequences.
For that reason, hoaxes are also being debunked by the HateFree initiative, which is implemented by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion. Lukáš Houdek, the head of that project, believes it is important not to succumb to facile judgments and that we must do our best to understand information in the relevant context.
Houdek believes it is crucial to verify information, and the initiative has therefore prepared an easy users' guide for how to verify whether information is false or misleading, which is one way to prevent the dissemination of hateful content. Journalist František Kostlán also understands debunking hoaxes to be part of his profession and has been involved in reporting on many scandals in which Romani people have been the targets of such crooked messages.
Kostlán admits that it took him the longest amount of time to debunk a fabricated report about Romani people receiving higher welfare payments than non-Roma, even though there was not the slightest shred of evidence for that allegation. It can also take a lot of work to debunk forged citations from historical sources, especially if the false information intentionally bolsters prejudices already shared by most people.
A serious journalist simply must verify information - of that Kostlán is convinced, which is why he does not like media outlets that are not consistent enough when it comes to objectivity or that have completely abandoned their societal role in this regard. Before we swallow some "guaranteed information" along with the fishing pole that hooked us, it is always useful to prevent ourselves from succumbing to simple emotions by attempting to assess the information analytically and critically.
HOW TO ADDRESS A HOAX
The basis of addressing hoaxes is being able to recognize their typical forms and signs - for example, a fake request for aid, or so-called chain messages, or a call to share news. Other indicators include poorly-translated texts or "pen-pals from abroad" who frequently present themselves as having inherited property or as owning real estate.
Internet users can preventively install so-called anti-spam filters, which are used either by e-mail programs (e.g., Outlook) or directly by your e-mail server. These programs automatically filter out spam.
Rule Number One is: Never click on attachments to spam e-mails or on the links inside them! Clicking can result in infecting your computer with malware or a virus, theft of your personal data, or "just" the inclusion of your e-mail address on a list for spam.
If a message does not contain the typical features of a hoax, but seems suspicious to you nonetheless, it always pays to verify its origin. There is a regularly updated list at www.hoax.cz that can aid you.
It is always worth ascertaining whether more than one source is reporting the information you have received (and not just as far as hoaxes are concerned). Directly contact the person the message is about, or contact the relevant institutions or professionals concerned.
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