Of late, the flurry of Whatsapp forwards has increased, many on current news issues. Most are so well-crafted it is difficult to know they are true of not. Things get worse when the mainstream media with all its reach, the power to advertise, runs the Whatsapp forwards with fake news as part of its offerings.
Recently news sites ran stories on how schools in Uttar Pradesh were asked to get kids into school on a Sunday, to celebrate Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s
birthday. It turned out to be a fake news, and the Uttar Pradesh Government had to issue disclaimers on the fake story
, which had by then run its course across various social media platforms, Whatsapp memes, and Facebook messenger jokes. Another story that went viral was that on the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers visiting Sidi Saiyyed mosque in Ahmedabad and disrupting the namaz of the faithful. Again a fake
Adding to it is the complication of using representational images. A image of the Gujarat riots as a representational image
for the recent bout of violence in West Bengal, raising tensions; or a particularly grisly video of a girl being beaten to death
, a video from Guatemala being passed off as a video of communal violence in Andhra Pradesh, and many more like these are making the rounds.
Fake news has gone beyond a joke, it is become something that causes hate to bubble over, and cause violence. The most horrific case of this is seven men getting lynched by mobs in Jharkhand because of Whatsapp messages that targeted them as child abductors.
Governments, political parties, the police, and media watchdogs, have taken the issue of Fake News seriously. But, there still arises a question – what is Fake News? The New York Times has an effective definition
: “fake news” means a made-up story with an intention to deceive, often geared toward getting clicks
”. This is different from politically motivated false news, put out by parties who want to influence the agenda or party.
It is relatively easy to crack down on the first category — those who are creating fake news, not out of any political agenda, but to be able to earn advertising dollars via Google and Facebook advertising. This came into focus during the US presidential election, where it was discovered that young men in the tiny Balkan nation of Macedonia put out fake news
on Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton, purely as clickbait, and to earn money. Facebook and Google have cracked down on this. This was relatively easy to do because it was a cottage industry.
However, there are those who are creating and sharing fake news because it helps their cause. And that machinery is a bit more difficult to shut down because it is far more organised and seems to have political patronage. Any attempt to shut down propaganda will be met with cries of censorship, and the best we all can hope for is that the extreme fringes of the Right and the Left that keep putting out fake images, data and stories end up nullifying each other. But, the cost of it is high – and that cost is the trust of citizens regarding media in general, and news in particular.
With the increasing sophistication of fake news, it was hoped that Artificial Intelligence
can be used to filter out the true from the fake. After all, machines can search better than humans, as well as be able to tell morphed images. Facebook has invested millions of dollars in Artificial Intelligence
in the hope that it would rid them of the fake news scourge.
But last month those hopes were dashed. AI, rather than being the solution to fake news, could be the greatest source of fake news. Researchers at the University of Washington
have developed an artificial intelligence that can precisely sync words into a video of a human being. The video they created was of the former US President Barack Obama. As, Mr Obama was widely filmed, it was easy for the programme to look at millions of video clips to learn how he moved his lips, and it was able to sync a full speech with a pre-existing video.
We are entering the murky areas of technology enabled news. At one end there are talks of AI replacing news gathering, being able to look at millions of local feeds online, and generating news. And at another we have fake news that can be easily constructed by a variant of the AI. Industry and Governments need to heed the advent of AI, and at least be prepared for the onslaught of even more sophistication in fake news.
Many news companies have given up on truth and verification and are chasing eyeballs by putting up lies. Unless the industry itself self-regulates and weeds out the fakes, the battle against fake news, enabled by AI, is lost.
(Harini Calamur is a writer, teacher and film-maker. She tweets at @calamur)
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