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Many, including journalists, recently fell for an old, by internet standards, prank or “click bait” on the internet.

Beware fake news

Many, including journalists, recently fell for an old, by internet standards, prank or “click bait” on the internet.

In this prank, an online newspaper (that looks legitimate unless you dig deeper) carries an article about US President Donald Trump suddenly making an unexpected U-turn on his campaign promises and has granted all Bhutanese citizens visa-free travel to the USA. On top of that, Bhutanese would be able to reside there for up to 180 days.

This is not the first time President Trump has rewarded Bhutanese. A few months ago, he held up a declaration on which he, again, promised visa-free travel to the USA for Bhutanese for being “good Buddhists”.

To anyone familiar with internet pranks, such “too good to be true” are simply phishing or click bait. You come up with a statement or headline so catchy that you get the user to click the link to find out more. Usually the baiter just wants you to visit their site and bait you to click more links so that he/she/it makes money off another third party.

A quick search of the internet would also show that it wasn’t only Bhutanese that were granted visa-free travel to the US. The headlines are the same, just the country is changed. It’s fake news.

However, in this recent case, some Bhutanese even contacted government and US embassy officials to confirm the news. The line is getting harder to distinguish between fake news and real news.

And if even journalists are finding it hard to tell the difference, this is a dangerous development and this is where the media must raise their own awareness, because we’ve to play a stronger role. We need to react faster to such fake news and debunk them as they appear. Today, the fake news about the visas is relatively harmless. However, there could be a day when those with more sinister motives exploit this platform and cause more serious damage.

We’re already susceptible to fake news and conspiracy theories and scams, especially information we want to hear like better chances with visas. For instance, the police are currently holding a suspect who is alleged to have duped a number of people by promising them US work visas given so-and-so contact here and there. Many were parted from their money. This is in spite of the several stories all media houses have run on the same kind of visa scams.

If not already, media literacy teachers need to teach their students how to distinguish between real and fake news, and what questions to ask themselves or what checks they can make on their own to identify fake news and scams.

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