fake news

Not Everything We See is Real Anymore The Rise of Fake News

The 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump coined the term “fake news” to implicate the mainstream media outlets that regularly disagreed with his own doctrine. However, the term has since been used to indicate one of the biggest concerns in the digital age.

The rise of social media as one of the (if not ‘the’) most powerful tools to spread messages has transformed the process of dissemination of information. In the past, if the hierarchy decided to curtail the flow of information, the options were straightforward: to hush the public media outlets, using legal or strong-armed approaches. However, the widespread availability of internet and the tsunami of portable devices that provide access to the internet (along with the ability to record audio-visual material) have changed that profoundly. It takes a matter of few seconds to send a message to literally anywhere densely populated, and access news all around the world. Unless the ruling regime incorporated an iron curtain over the use of the internet (similar to China), this rapid flow of information cannot be prevented. It has the benefits of being able to penetrate into a massive crowd before any other media can even think of, and in situations such as an impending natural disaster, such capability is invaluable. However, as with practically every technological development since the advent of mankind, it has its negative impacts.

The recent political turnaround in Sri Lanka is resonating in the social media as well. Supporters of different political groups vigorously promote their vision and try to challenge the opposing viewpoints with original content as well as shared content. During the digital hullabaloo, a message, purportedly from one of the major news providers in Sri Lanka received prominence; it suggested that the Monday to immediately follow was declared a public holiday. Needless to say, the message spread like wildfire through internet-based messenger services, before certain concerned groups raised alarm over its authenticity. It eventually took a press release by the Presidential Secretariat, which publicly denied such an event, to quash the story. This may be considered as an isolated incidence, but it highlighted the danger of ‘fake news’ in an alarming fashion.

The definition of ‘fake news’ may seem obvious; news that is not real. However, the term has evolved to incorporate multiple methods of spreading inaccurate information, as well as challenging established facts, and legitimate information outlets. The origins of the term cannot be traced, as the term has been used for a long period of time, including this cartoon from 1898. However, it has entered the everyday lexicon quite recently, due in particular to the massive attention it generated during the 2016 United States’ presidential election, and the frequent use of the term by the winner of that election.

Beyond the two major potentials of fake news, to spread misinformation and to discredit facts, the biggest threat to the society comes from the ‘virality’ of such news. It is useful to investigate the reasons behind the generation of fake news to explain this behavior. In general, a vast majority of fake news spread across groups incorporate beliefs that are central to such groups, and are woven around an event that echoes such beliefs, and strengthens them. These groups are usually driven by a common social, religious, political, national or ethnic ideology. The biggest concern is that the misinformation spread to such groups tends to generate an inflammatory response to another group of people, who are usually involved in the event leading to the fake news. Depending on the nature of the message, the mentality and the volume of the target groups, this phenomenon can lead to a range of negative results, from a highly personal smear campaign to a violent mob resulting in murderous rampages. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has highlighted the far end of this spectrum recently in an intriguing series of news articles.

Image – BBC’s dedicated segment on “Fake News”

In one harrowing story, an angry mob had burned down two men, aged 21 and 43, who were visiting their neighbors. Their only ‘reason’ to do so was a message shared on WhatsApp that stated the presence of ‘foreign child kidnappers who were trafficking organs’. The two men, who were strangers to the town, were apparently labeled as child kidnappers by the mob, and before any legal authority could crackdown the ruthless group, they had beaten and burned the two men. The elder of the two was apparently alive when he was set alight. Numerous similar stories were reported from neighboring India, where several people were beaten and killed by mobs due to such false messages spreading virally through internet messenger services.

Messages spreading through WhatsApp is one of the major frontiers of fake news. The other problems arise from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where people tend to ‘share’ original as well as others material to a wider audience. As Barack Obama’s innovative 2008 presidential election campaign unveiled, social media presented a strong platform for people to share a view, and more importantly, convince others to believe in the idea. The situation reached unprecedented levels by the 2016 US election, and social media became a very powerful platform for candidates to penetrate undecided voter base. However, in the process, misinformation was widely speculated to be shared by both parties. The subsequent findings have significantly contributed to the ultra – high profile investigation into the election, by the US Department of Justice. During the recent political turnaround in Sri Lanka, supporters of different political groups were identified to share such misinformation aimed at discrediting and smearing the opposite political groups. The majority of users tend to ignore the authenticity of sensitive messages being shared on such platforms, and rush to spread the message if it blends with their own beliefs, regardless of its accuracy.

The biggest concern in these incidents is the virality of misinformation. As these platforms are not monitored and filtered (especially WhatsApp, which uses end – to – end encryption to protect the user information), anyone with access to the application has the ability to fabricate and share such information. Facebook, in particular, has been under constant pressure from the European and US lawmakers to crack down on the fake content, as well as the protection of user data. However, with a user base exceeding one billion In the early days, a doctored image could have been adequate to provide substantial backing for the fabricated story. Making matters worse is the evolution of technology, which allows entire videos to be generated where the subject ‘speaks out’ whatever its creator wants the subject to say. Deep fake videos (a combination of two terms ‘Deep Learning’ and ‘Fake’) is the latest threat faced by experts, as the videos created through this technology appear to be perfectly real. Literally, anyone with a knowledge in the technology can create a video, which can give a threatening level of authenticity to misinformation. Coupled with the inherent viral nature of such messages, one message can result in a complete breakdown of the society, and the after effects could be devastating to the community.

As responsible citizens, it is our duty to prevent this fake news threat from morphing into a disaster. It requires responsible online behavior, which promotes fact – checking and source verification of any material of social influence that is being shared, and an active crackdown on fake material as soon as those are exposed.

Exposition Magazine Issue 14

Mr. Nirmala Liyanarachchi


Department of Industrial Management

University of Kelaniya

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