In a recent example, as of July 1, 2018, a fake information-induced mob lynching has claimed 23 lives in 18 such reported incidents
Social media’s role in a common person’s life has blurred the online-offline divide. Online activity has a huge potential to improve the quality and quantity of communication across the globe. However, at the same time, it also raises severe challenges. Whether it is about social issues or national and political matters, social media gives issues a good amount of attention. Along with the other social media-related challenges, fake news and disinformation has become one of the most serious problems to face us. The phenomenon of fake news has attained wider implications for law and order, alongside the safety and security of the citizens, and the democratic credentials of the country.
In a recent example, as of July 1, 2018, a fake information-induced mob lynching has claimed 23 lives in 18 such reported incidents in India. Fake news, social media messages and campaigns have been used to malign the reputation of organisations as well as to manipulate stock markets, as in the cases such as the ‘Arctic Ready’ hoax targeting Shell in 2012 and the Associated Press twitter account hack in 2013.
Unfortunately, fake news and disinformation incidents are becoming increasingly common during election campaigns around the world. US based non-governmental organisation, Freedom House, in its 2017 annual report on Freedom on the Net stated that online manipulation and disinformation tactics played vital role in general elections of 18 countries, including the US. There are many examples of disinformation during elections as the Philippine’s Rodigo Duterte’s 2016 poles were wildly supported by a paid keyboard army. In another instance, “government’s agents” propagated false information about opposition before elections in Venezuela. According to a study by Oxford university researchers, false stories on social media overloaded French voters ahead of the country’s presidential election and Facebook suspended about 30,000 fake/automated accounts to stop distributing politically driven misinformation and propaganda. In his first campaign ad, Donald Trump purported to show Mexican migrants crossing the border from Mexico. But the footage was actually migrants crossing from Morocco to Melilla in North Africa. So the content was not fake but the context and depiction was wrong, which more or less has the same impact as fake news. African countries have also become prey to this alarming tactic in last few years. Before Kenya’s elections in August 2016, fake social media articles claimed killing of more than 100 protestors by Kenyan Police which caused massive riots in the country. Zambia and Gambia also reportedly witnessed disruption of mobile broadband networks in opposition areas and complete internet shutdown before the elections.
The questions about the role of Facebook and other social media sites in politics have become increasingly serious. Reports revealed that Cambridge Analytica — the social media monitoring firm that bragged it helped put Trump in the White House — had gained access before the election to the data of 87 million Facebook users through highly questionable means. Cambridge Analytica was shown as a tool of psychological warfare to manipulate and influence voters’ opinion with targeted Facebook ads and social media campaigns. It was unethically used.
There are different disinformation tactics used by some countries during the election campaigns such as pro-government commentator and propaganda to employ to manipulate online discussions by introducing the sponsored content. In Sudan, cyber jihadists in country’s intelligence service created fake social media accounts to express support for government policies and denounce critical journalists. In another instance of pro-government propaganda, oligarchs close to the government of Hungary and Russia bought critical websites in order to change their editorial directions. During last few years, some relevant incidents also emerged in Pakistan such as hacking of PML-N website in 2011, hacking of PTI website in 2014, and hacking of PTI’ spokesperson’s twitter account in 2017.
Freedom House, in its 2017 annual report on Freedom on the Net stated that online manipulation and disinformation tactics played a vital role in general elections of 18 countries, including the US
As other developing countries, internet has penetrated into Pakistan’s society effectively. Though Pakistan’s internet penetration is still at 15.5 per cent but with its trickledown effect, it has become risky. People use internet, especially social media platforms, for effective marketing and campaigning, and even for effective propaganda.
The fact is that threat of fake news and disinformation in the political and electoral process in Pakistan can have serious consequences as Pakistan experienced disinformation campaigns in previous general elections by different political parties. Fake news does not only have consequences at the national level but it can also pose serious threat for diplomatic relations between countries, such as when Pakistan’s former defence minister Khawaja Asif reacted to a fake story on internet and issued a statement directed to Israel.
Major concern remains as to how fake news could be countered successfully. Due diligence on part of the users, as actual consumers or targets of fake information and online content, can counter the spread of fake news. Human judgement and wisdom is critical to solving this problem, but it needs extensive awareness and education campaigning. Users, aware of the basic fact-checking methods and social fallouts of the fake information they share, are better positioned to contain its proliferation. Before sharing dubious content, users can exercise judgement to question the source and its credibility or check the credentials of the individual it has come from. This could act as barriers to this uncontrolled flow of falsified information. By and large, eradicating fake news problem calls for a collective effort of individuals, government, social media and content platforms, as well as organizations producing innovative technology solutions. Stand-alone technology solutions cannot be effective, unless and until they are integrated with social causes and awareness among the masses to solve such mounting problems.
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Times, newspaper.
Afeera Firdous is a Research Assistant at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. She holds a Masters degree in Strategic and Nuclear Studies from National Defence University (NDU), Islamabad. Currently, she is enrolled in the M.Phil program at the Department of Strategic Studies, NDU Islamabad. Her M.Phil thesis is on "Counter-terrorism in Cyberspace: Comparative Analysis of Pakistan and India". Her research interests includes counter-extremism, counter-terrorism, cyber and strategic issues.