Understanding Online Falsehood From the Perspective of Social Problem

Understanding Online Falsehood From the Perspective of Social Problem

Anjan Pal (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) and Snehasish Banerjee (University of York, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8535-0.ch001


The perspective of social problem has been used to analyze a variety of disconcerting phenomena over the years. These run the gamut from unemployment and drug addiction to sexual assault and child labor. Meanwhile, digital technology has now cemented itself firmly as a dominant social phenomenon. As its by-product, it has engendered online falsehood—often manifested as fake news or rumors—that easily becomes viral on the internet. Yet, research has not examined the phenomenon of online falsehood through the lens of social problem hitherto. Therefore, this chapter seeks to explain how the issue of online falsehood has now turned into a problem for the digital society. With a social constructionism paradigm, the chapter draws on the literature about the construction of social problems. A typology of online falsehood is also proposed. The chapter concludes with an urgent call to combat online falsehood.
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Online Falsehood

Unprecedented advances in new media technologies have revolutionized how people create and consume information in this digital age (Hamari et al., 2016; Westlund & Färdigh, 2015). They have given rise to new avenues for dissemination and collection of information. In particular, traditional word-of-mouth is now complemented by electronic word-of-mouth, an umbrella term that refers to all types of online messages created by Internet users (Hennig‐Thurau et al., 2004; Westlund & Färdigh, 2015).

While truckloads of online information are continuously being created, their quality can vary intensely from fact to fiction (Hornik et al., 2015). This is mainly because they are neither always created by domain experts nor guaranteed to be scrutinized by vigilant gatekeepers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, online falsehood is known to sprout as a digital weed on the fertile soil of technology (Mazer et al., 2015; Smith et al., 2014).

Online falsehood encompasses the phenomenon whereby unfounded and unverified online messages leave behind their digital footprint in the form of texts, pictures or videos on the Internet. What is worrying is that such dubious messages are often mistaken as facts, and in turn cause people to take actions that they would not have taken otherwise. For instance, the hoax that consuming iodized table salt would help minimize the harmful effects of a possible radiation leak at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the wake of the Japanese earthquake in March 2011 caused people to stockpile salt (World Health Organization, 2011). Likewise, the doomsday rumor in China resulted in public fears that starting from 21 December 2012, there would be three consecutive days of darkness on the earth. As people prepared to deal with the prolonged darkness, candles went out of stock (Wang, Zhao, & Huang, 2014). Understandably, such hoaxes are not easily separable from truths. If people end up believing the former at the expense of the latter, a social disaster is definitely on the cards.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Constructionism: Social constructionism refers to the belief that knowledge is socially constructed and is related to the context in which it is developed.

Disinformation: Disinformation refers to the deliberate dissemination of false or misleading content.

Misinformation: Misinformation refers to false or misleading content disseminated by individuals who do not recognize it as false.

Post-Truth: Post-truth refers to the circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping individuals’ opinion than appeals to their emotion and belief.

Electronic Word-of-Mouth (eWOM): eWOM refers to messages that are written to be exposed through internet-mediated communication.

Online Rumor: Online rumor refers to any unsubstantiated content circulating on the internet.

Denial: Denial refers to message that is intended to debunk false information.

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