‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth”.
–George Orwell, 1984.
What is ‘Fake News’?
Information obtained through watching, hearing, reading or through observations, using assorted mediums like radio, TV, print or social media, internet and personal interactions may not always be true. Aristotle explains it as “Even the reality or fact is perceived and is thus called as Perceived Reality”. The term ‘Fake News’ was coined towards the end of the 19th century. Fake news is concocted or misleading information orchestrated to aspire for some covert motive as a news item that often (but not always) has some covert intent. The fake news is used as a product and thus disseminated for accruing the following objectives:
a. To cause damage to the reputation of an individual, community or entity.
b. Germinating a restructured and wide-ranging perception with a view to confusing people for manipulating views in private, public, political or societal domains.
c. Overcoming the cognitive domains of the masses, thus moulding their contemplations for making profit through advertisements via its channels.
d. To serve any of the vested interests by an individual, community, organisation or state/government.
e. Through gimmickries as a joke to entertain or gain attention of the people.
In contemporary times of technological advancements, fake news has attained a peculiar capacity of misleading people substantially. With the growing use of internet and social media, the prevalence of fake news has amplified blatantly. Well crafted fake news items can contest or surpass the factual narrations, consequently undermining the acceptance potential of authentic news.
The Information Disorder
Fake news is broadly categorised as “misinformation” and “disinformation’. Misinformation is lightly cooked information perceived incorrectly by misconstruing and spreading without any agenda. Whereas, disinformation is false information that is crafted deliberately for spreading, so as to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. Yet there exists another kind of implement known as “malinformation”, wherein information is based on reality, however it is used to inflict harm to a person, social group, organisation or state. History is replete with examples of ruinous consequences due to the spread of fake news. The best example of spreading fake news as a rumour can be best found in the Battle of Uhud, once a hypocrite by the name Abd-Allah ibn Ubayy spread the fake news of (Allah forbid) Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) death, thus causing a demoralising effect on the fighting soldiers during the heat of the battle. In another example Emperor Octavian ran a successful smear propaganda against Mark Antony, who was until then, the most admired general of the Roman Army. Octavian printed some of his misrepresentations of Antony on coins for maximum exposure, placing the General’s loyalty to Rome under question. Anyone who has read even a little about World War II cannot ignore Goebbels’ name, his work and words: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
Pakistan’s geostrategic location in the world arena is of imperative nature, thus leaving it a suitable ground of playing for many stakeholders. These stakeholders, through their influence, are trying to accrue maximum benefits, while using the modules of building a perception based on unreality as per their predilections. We must realise that we are in a state of war; an ‘Information War’. Determining and conceding with realism that fake news is a problem dictates to first understand the problem as without understanding the problem, finding the solution becomes a difficult proposition.
Spread of Internet and Onslaught of Social Media
The internet has given new dimensions to the spread of fake news by provision of unprecedented dissemination potential. Resultantly, fake news can rapidly traverse across the globe with swiftness, little effects of cost and efforts, outside political and social precincts. Owing to the internet, the global audiences are more overflooded with assorted loads of information, thus making it cumbersome and tedious for recipients to sift/filter it for correctness. The levitation of information on the internet makes it easier nowadays for audiences to receive it from another end of the globe in split seconds. A single fake news can spread like a jungle fire and is believed to be true by folks holding smart phones in their hands. Along with the increasing acceptance of social media, the reality of virtual world with unidentified characters interacting with each other has compounded the possibilities of accepting fake news on these online public platforms. Sources of fake news are difficult to be tracked and are thus less accountable or liable to legal actions. In the absence of any authentication or accountability for fact checking, fake news remain unchecked and may spread quickly or even go viral. In the presence of information overload being continuously shared without any authentication, it is very difficult to identify the original source of news and its authenticity. We have flood of fake news on social media, both disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation on social media could be aimed to: increase social media marketing effectiveness; boost online traffic; attract more followers; gain more power by increasing popularity or influence; incite an emotional response; or create a distraction etc. Unfortunately, people are more likely to visit websites with sensational, exciting and entertaining news as well as information that is either controversial or confirming to their views or beliefs. Conspiracy theories are more exciting and attractive for the general public, thus they spread fast.
Motivation behind Propagation of Fake News
The development of fake news items and stories are always done with nefarious designs based on propaganda to mislead the recipients. In the broader perspective, fake news is designed/moulded for the following reasons:
a. In IT domains, often times, these may be designed as “clickbait” for economic inducements as the originator of the news may intend to accrue profits or promotions, selling a product or even downloading a software or application that has concealed malicious content.
b. Fake news may be created to cultivate or mould political perceptions/beliefs aiming at obtaining unjust support of the masses by creating a cognitive dissonance. These news items are generally a result of either poor journalism or yellow journalism in the era of capitalist competition for taking a lead in breaking the news to the public.
c. Fake news can also be assumed for lack of understanding satire/sarcasm from satirists with the intent of entertaining their audiences.
d. To add flavour to the news, certain highly controversial issues are cooked with spices of fakery, thus presenting completely preposterous information to increase the online traffic for more revenue generation.
e. Sometimes half-truth is betokened in the news/story, wherein only a twitch of the news/story may be true for attracting more audiences. Likewise, quotations from people are mostly misquoted and stories/news exaggerated to achieve some malicious objectives.
Developing Skills to Discern Real and Fake News
A half-truth is a full lie. Similarly, fake news crafted with a certain blend of truth baked inside the item makes it more dangerous, as a lie wrapped inside the truth is extremely difficult to judge. Therefore, an endeavour can be made at individual as well as collective level for developing the ability to distinguish truths from lies, thus curbing the spread of fake news. Accepting the news received randomly without verification is making us liable to become part of this annoying phenomenon and adding misperception to an incident. Generally, fake news contains a component of ‘shock value’, which plays with the human emotions and triggers reactions like anger, joy, fear and hopes of individuals.
We need to hold our emotions while confronting any information online and assess the story critically with some rationale. Another simple check is to analyse the source of the story. Availability of requisite fact-finding procedures with mainstream media agencies withstanding, the possibility of human prejudices can still not be overruled. Since facts can be twisted to support a certain viewpoint, therefore, we need to critically examine the story and the presented facts. Correspondingly, images presented cannot be trusted wholesomely even if these look accurate even, owing to the technology buzzes like modern editing software and use of modern AI (Artificial Intelligence) based technologies (such as deep fakes) for producing highly misleading images that appear to be real. Besides, these pictures/photographs are even presented out of context by representing a wrong location or time/era for strengthening the declared narrative/perception. Yet one way of authenticating an image could be through ‘Google Reverse Image Search’ or other similar online tools. Finally, after a critical analysis, it will always be our common sense that will prevail and enable us to differentiate between fakery or reality.
Detecting Malicious Websites Spreading Fake Stories
Reliable and official websites must always be sought and searched for with care for reliability instead of untrusted websites. Websites spreading fake news can be detected by a few simple checks. To guard against the maliciously designed websites, the originality of the web address (domain name) can be checked against any spelling errors or strange unusual extensions. Legitimate news sites usually have a professional domain name matching with the name of their organization. Domain of a URL always tells the country, the site it is hosted from (like .pk, .uk, .ca, .au etc.) or the purpose of the website (like .edu, .gov, .com). People involved in spreading fake news generally masquerade official websites (phishing) that may look real by using URLs that mimic popular sites, while using a different top-level domain. All legitimate news sites have pages like 'About Us', 'Contact Us’ or other information pages, which may be investigated to find the owner, organization or agency of the website. The composition of English language including syntax, spellings, and grammatical mistakes also reveal the reliability of a website. Credible and authentic news websites put in substantial effort in designing their websites as good web design is always a sign of trustworthiness. On the other hand, sites with too many colours or fonts, poor use of white space, and numerous animated gifs are seldom very authentic. Though a good web design is not the reason for believing a website to be genuine, ensuing critical check. Paid content and directed advertising have overwhelmed the internet. Quality news websites comparatively have less of such content, especially popups and banner ads, advertisement links are easily recognisable, where chances of clicking on these by mistake are relatively less. The fashion of advertisements for displaying along with other links on a website actually manifests the credibility of the website itself. Finally, research is must for ascertaining the authenticity of any news by viewing different other sources as a cross-check. Research to a greater extent will always accrue dividends in finding accurate news, thus leaving less chances of falling prey to fake news. Once not sure, further transmission of news items must be avoided
Role of Search Engines in Promoting Fake News
Social media being the main source for the spread of fake news withstanding, the inherent mechanism of search engines also present a significant threat in the circulation of fake news. Algorithms used by search engines tend to display search results as a priority and are being formulated basing on the user engagements or received clicks, termed as 'user relevance'. So the accuracy, validity, or reliability of search results is not given due weightage. In such a situation when people continually click and share any misinformation, the page hosting such items may even move to the top of the search results and unfortunately, this vicious cycle goes on. People with the purpose of spreading fake news already know about the limitations of algorithms used by search engines and would continue to exploit this limitation.
Deepfake – Causing the Situation to Become More Challenging
Deepfake, based on AI technology, is used to make content including videos, pictures and audios close to reality, yet these computer-generated facsimile appear to be original as far as visages, voices, gestures and facial expressions are concerned. Videos can be contrived for real people, even without prior consent of people by mocking their dispositions and activities. This is going to be a real challenge as Deepfake is going to give a new dimension to fake news, where fabricated content could appear as real. This might become the biggest source of spreading fake news on the one side and shattering people’s trust on the other, as they can no longer rely on what they see and hear online. Deepfakes will challenge public trust in what’s real, thus the common saying ‘seeing is believing’, may not even be true in this case. One does not need to be a technology expert to use this AI based Deepfake technology as more and more new software tools for common users are becoming publicly available.
Cat and Mouse Game
Amalgamated news consisting of accurate and inaccurate content make the winnowing of truth from false news a difficult proposition. Consequently, a more perplexed situation arises, creating a trust deficit amongst recipients of news. This situation of mistrust creates an environment of unreliability, thus reducing the credibility of even mainstream media. Fake news, correctly termed as ‘Digital Wildfire’, are now appearing as one of the biggest threats faced by people, societies and states. Around 3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video are shared online daily, so separating real content from fake in this scenario using manual methods, may not be possible at all. Existing manual forensic detection methods rely on examining features that may not be included in every image. Moreover, they are time-consuming, expensive and need specialised expertise. In this situation automated detection tools using modern technology can come to the rescue. Computer vision and machine learning offer relatively advanced detection capabilities but require technical expertise to operate. The same AI technology that is used to make deepfakes is helping to detect it. There is a cat and mouse game between fake creation and detection. It is most likely that this contest will continue indefinitely.
Technology Supports the Fight
There are social media content verification tools which could be used to verify online content. Some credible journalists are now using these tools to do fact checks, however, widespread promotion of such tools need awareness, education and training. Invisible digital watermarking to authenticate the contents could also be one of the solutions. Neural nets, loosely modelled on the human brain with many interconnected computer processors, with the ability to identify meaningful patterns in data like words and images could also be used to detect fake news. Social media platforms are also committed to deploy modern tools to automatically detect and remove fake and fabricated contents from these platforms before it is spread, however, at present, effectiveness of such solutions remains challenging and requires a lot of improvements and wider deployments.
Spreading ‘Fake News’ is More Organised in 5th Generation Warfare
In the recent years, propaganda warfare has attained an altogether new dimension and has become more planned. The states around the globe are involved in spreading of fake news over the internet and are secretly backing and funding these sophisticated campaigns in a much planned manner. Pakistan in recent times has become a serious victim of this vicious cycle called “Complex Hybrid and 5G Warfare”. External enemies are effectively utilising non-kinetic means to damage our national integration through building an anti-state narrative and coercion by targeting the local population in general and narcissistic minds in particular. Recently, the EU DisinfoLab, an independent non-profit organisation, unveiled a very sophisticated and resilient disinformation campaign targeting the EU, its member states and its core institutions mainly by Indian IT experts. The findings can be found in two reports titled ‘Indian Chronicles’ published in 2019 and 2020. EU DisinfoLab tracked a large network with over 750 fake media outlets, 550 website domain names and over 10 NGOs accredited to the UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council) and European Parliament, to Srivastava Group (SG), a Delhi-based holding company, running this elaborate operation. The network, spread over 116 countries, was serving Indian interests and India’s foreign and security policy goals by carrying out a global disinformation campaign supported by fake news, primarily against Pakistan and to an extent against China. The network was designed primarily to ‘discredit Pakistan internationally’ and influence decision-making at the UNHRC and European Parliament. Asian News International (ANI), India’s largest wire service (Text and TV) was closely associated with Srivastava Group in the campaign. Although the EU DisinfoLab revealed this mayhem, however, it took almost fifteen years to unveil the truth, causing massive damage to Pakistan. We thus need to develop our own capabilities to defend ourselves in such situations by effectively and timely checking similar malicious campaigns.
Exercise of Vigilance and Care during COVID-19
In case of any natural calamity causing disaster, people are more prone to fear and anxiety. Presently, the natural disaster of COVID-19 pandemic, social media as well as internet is loaded with a lot of news items pertaining to COVID-19. Sifting of correct information from fake news becomes a real dilemma. A lot of misinformation about Coronavirus like conspiracy theories, incorrect information regarding medical advice, side effects and quantum of its projected damages are a common phenomenon in the entire world. Emergence of such circumstances compels people to suffer from emotional traumas, personality imbalances and boorishness, causing them to become bewildered. The present pandemic has really become an infodemic (abundance of accurate and inaccurate information). Resultantly, loads of incorrect and ostensibly harmful instructions are hampering the candid public health responses. Fake news spreads faster and more conveniently than malware, causing damaging effects. People in deficient in motivation as well as skills for authenticating fake news become tools for spreading fake news. Changing the wrong perceptions and beliefs of people is a daunting task, yet unlearning wrong beliefs is an important task for a candid society. People perceiving situations as per their cognitive inclinations always remain adamant with their wrong beliefs. Trusted official sources can be a source of accurate information. However, a recent study spread over a period of 90 days (December 2020, January and February 2021), carried out in USA found out that people inclined towards websites with false or misleading information about COVID-19, is a whopping 142 times more than the official websites from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. In such situations, misinformation could be very harmful as people may not follow the given guidelines and adhere to correct protocols for the disease. Myths about the side effects of vaccination and even the belief regarding non-existence of Coronavirus are the results of fake news.
Social media platforms are earning money from advertisements based mostly on fabricated content. People's right to freedom of expression is totally denied by vested interests and business stakes. This deems enforcement of a transparent blocking policy based on solid fact-checking. Critical minds detect fake news very easily, thereby developing a critical approach to analyse stories is imperative. Fake news will continue to exist and will not cease to pop up, however, this dilemma can easily be evaded if fake news is ascertained before causing harm to us. This task can be done at individual as well collective basis at the societal or state level. A simple and easy yet effective thing that we can do very conveniently is to simply stop their spread, thus reducing their visibility.
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