Disinformation and propaganda for achieving one’s ends by foul means is not a new phenomenon. Around 320 BC Kautilya’s Arthashastra enunciated this as a state policy, in recent times, the Pakistan Army and the ISI have borne the brunt of those lies. Perpetrators of fake news have financial, ideological or political motives. Posing a greater threat of international geopolitical concern in the age of internet, social media fake news generated by Russian outlets during the 2016 US presidential elections reportedly resulted in President Trump’s victory. Professor of Political Science Simon Hegelich of the Technical University of Munich recalls that in November 2016the German Chancellor Angela Markel called “to know what the hell is going on.”
The post-mortem of Clinton’s loss was full of buzzwords: the manipulation of voter sentiment, filter bubbles, bots, fake news, disinformation, etc. Automated algorithms known as bots help false reports go viral much faster than politicians or fact-checkers can debunk them. A shadowy Saint Petersburg-based Russian forum called the “Internet Research Agency” purchased over 3000 divisive ads in Facebook in September 2017 for stoking and amplifying US social issues such as racism and gun control. The claims are in sync with Russia somehow hijacking the elections.
The current “post-truth” era “appeals to emotion and personal belief being far more influential in shaping public opinion than objective facts.” Objective reporting is not consistent with this worldview, only the spin of competing perspectives is. Establishing “alternative facts” through the use of “fake news” has made “Psychological Operations” (psyops) against the adversary more sophisticated. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) makes it possible to generate and spread fake videos by synthesizing people’s facial expressions, resulting in widespread deception before such reports can be debunked by forensic analysis or denial from the primary source. Looking real, those videos would take hours if not days, for forensic analysis to show it as fake, by then its impact would be almost irreversible. According to Hegelich, casting a trace of doubt over everything would undermine democracy and would be mission accomplished.
Anonymous hackers can steal the secrets of virtually any politician; social media platforms have dramatically changed the previous media technologies. An Internet connection is all that’s needed to command an audience of millions. Most content generated on social media has no “gate keeper”, ie, unlike a credible journalist outlet; content can be communicated with no substantial fact checking or journalistic decree. Admitting the company’s role in fake news impacting the US Presidential elections, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg initiated counter measures to protect election integrity but cautioned that “identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated. Because of internet connections, the tools of political interference have progressed enough to threaten world democracies. With the news market relatively low in Social media platforms, fake news articles generate a substantial advertising income when the social media users click or access the original site. Social media doesn’t bound the fake news producers to any consequences or affect their long-term repute.
Post-truth “alternative facts” and lies can have a destabilizing effect on domestic and international politics. With literacy rate low people in South Asia are particularly vulnerable; they tend to easily believe what they see and hear. Right-wing extremists in India such as BJP use fake stories to target minorities and exploit religious differences. India is now Facebook and Whatsapp’s biggest consumer base. Indian mainstream media has incredibly low journalistic standards; major news sources often broadcast fake news without verifying. Facebook is running full page ads in Indian newspapers attempting to spread awareness about how to spot fake news. Rumoured to be behind the “Dawn Leaks,” former PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz was running her social media team Strategic Media Communication Cell (SMCC) from the PM’s House, targeting political rivals and countering anything against the former PM.
False content in Facebook and/or Whatsapp is difficult to track down or counter effectively. After the brutal lynching of Mashal Khan, fake profiles on Facebook were created to attribute blasphemous content to the murdered individual to justify his killing. One should introduce a fact-checking curriculum in schools to make students more aware of their sources of information but that will take years to have an impact, fake news technology in the meantime will continue to advance and flourish.
Spreading fake news can have destabilizing effects on society, governance, domestic and international politics, democracies are threatened by the manipulation of public opinion. Low journalistic standards make it difficult for the media to play a positive role for democracy in an enabling environment with mechanisms allowing accountability. Countering this collateral damage coordination is necessary to enhance cyber-security to fight the “disinformation warfare. Improved technological tools for fact-checking, and stronger action by governments and educated individuals are vital steps needed.” Developing new ways to identify and remove fake accounts, algorithms can ferret out fake content and isolate unauthentic material. Having a responsibility to proactively promote fact-based narratives to counter misinformation campaigns, governments must not themselves become party to this negative media campaign.
Planting fake stories about individuals and entities is nothing new for intelligence agencies; in this mode of “hybrid warfare” they require tools to counter fake stories. With German intelligence agencies overhauling their cyber-capabilities to better protect their cyber-systems against hacker attacks, the European Union (EU) has a devoted “East Stratcom” for countering subversion. For combating hybrid warfare the British have re-connected the “Chindits” unit called “Brigade 77”.
Holding that “false news is a threat to our culture of debate,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas processed a law through the German Parliament that will impose fines of upto$50 million on Facebook and other social media companies that do not promptly remove “illegal content,” a term used to target everything from hate speech and pornography to malicious propaganda. The “Network Enforcement Act” aims to regulate social media with an unprecedented rigour. “There should be just as little tolerance for criminal rabble rousing on social networks as on the street,” Maas said, “the tools of sabotage have advanced enough to threaten democracies. If there are new ways to manipulate public opinion, then we will see a new type of democracy. It’s really important that we make our electoral decisions on the basis of facts and not lies.”
Both institutions and individuals have a responsibility to not trust or spread disinformation, and identify primary sources. Should we become a criminal state in the name of democracy?
(The writer is a security and defence analyst)