Welcome to the post-truth world.
Where political narrative needs to provoke.
Where investments in social media cells have become a large part of election campaign budgets.
Where "share-ability" often has higher currency over sound data or policy-driven campaigns.
Where anyone can initiate misinformation or disinformation anonymously, exploding surreptitiously on messenger platforms and the dark web.
Misinformation purveyors have managed to twist and cherry-pick available data to their benefit - presenting a half-baked version of the truth to further their agenda.
An increasing distrust in the media and government has provided the space for alternative news and narratives to crop up on social media. When people share these posts, images or videos on their social media timelines, it increases the credibility of that information - riding on a "confirmation bias". The audience seeks a reaffirmation of their beliefs and platform algorithms help nurture this. "Fake news" is simple, excites emotions, supports biases and provokes sharing. Verified, fact-based news is complex, layered and needs time and attention to comprehend - and, therefore, not that shareable. It is predicted that by 2022, there will be more fake news than genuine in the ecosystem, making people more susceptible to believing in misinformation.
And then there is artificial intelligence; a double-edged sword - both fighting and fuelling misinformation. Machine learning algorithms have, for ages, assisted in classifying spam based on text analysis, as with emails and continue to do so on various other platforms - the most recent to introduce this being WhatsApp. Bulk messaging and automated behaviour on the messaging platform is detected using machine learning algorithms. According to WhatsApp, once an account is identified and banned from the platform for being abusive, the technology allows them to reverse engineer the behaviour to prevent further abuse based on that particular pattern.
AI could also have a reverse effect on the fake news ecosystem, by helping it spread its reach. A San Francisco-based non-profit AI research group, co-founded by Elon Musk, has designed an AI that can create authentic-looking fake news articles based on feeder information. Based on just few pieces of information, the system can churn out entire articles, replete with imaginary quotes and names to make it appear believable. Open AI has now decided not to make the source code of the software available as a precaution against its misuse.
So where is Fake news at in India, in this environment? A little like a wild fire, but still comparatively rudimentary in its format. Clips edited out of context, super-laid with audio from someplace else, photos superimposed, taken out of context -- most fake news content is easily identifiable.
An effective way to proactively combat this wildfire is by having a dedicated fact-checking team in place. For instance, we call our initiative WEBQOOF (playing on the Hindi word "bewaqoof" which means fool). The Webqoof team focuses on fact-checking speeches, images, videos, and text. The team utilises data available in public domain to conduct fact checks. For photos and videos, open source tools like 'reverse image search' and 'key-frame' searches help do the job. Getting in touch with the subject of misinformation directly, helps debunk the false claim as well.
And it helps to involve readers in the process - get your readers to participate in the fake news spotting process - ask them to send across any suspect information they come across. The internal team can then verify the facts and put together a fact-checked story, which is shared back with readers. These fact-checked stories can then be published, not just on your news site but can also be pushed out onto messenger platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook etc. to combat the fake stories in their own playing field. Make sure your team realises the importance of making these fact-checked stories shareable by using the same keywords as the original "fake" stories did. And remember - video content travels the most.
Identifying the source of the false information goes a long way in busting the claim and that is why, getting on-ground to fact check or verify a claim, is the best way to move forward.
Fighting fake news is a bit like the existentialist myth of Sisyphus. Take help from your readers to push the fact check boulder up the mountain.
(Ritu Kapur is CEO, Quintillion Media).
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