Fake News

Business Bhutan - - Opinion - FUMBLY PLAY

By now, any­one who has watched global news or been ac­tive on so­cial me­dia would have heard the con­stant re­minders that the Rus­sians ma­li­ciously im­pacted the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tions of 2016. It is shock­ing that for­eign ac­tors could have in­fil­trated a democ­racy as old and revered as the U.S’. This causes fear for the rest of us. But more than the act it­self, it is the man­ner in the Rus­sians pulled the act off, which is shock­ing. The first rev­e­la­tions showed that the Rus­sians had hacked into the email servers of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and the Clin­ton Cam­paign. They re­leased some damn­ing emails to the Amer­i­can public with the in­tended goal of neg­a­tively af­fect­ing views of Clin­ton. But that’s not what in­ter­ests me. As we have learned over the past month, the more ef­fec­tive in­tru­sion came sub­tly through so­cial me­dia. The simplicity of their tech­nique is as­tound­ing. I write this is as a re­port on how they ex­e­cuted it, and a guide on how the Bhutanese can avoid be­ing duped as the Amer­i­cans were. The hu­man think­ing suf­fers from a great many bi­ases – these are flaws in how we think and sep­a­rate our think­ing from ra­tio­nal rea­son­ing. Of the many cog­ni­tive bi­ases we suf­fer from, the Rus­sians heav­ily re­lied on the fre­quency bias. Hu­mans tend to be­lieve that a view is true (or ac­cept­able) if they hear about it enough – so, the fre­quency with which a view is held in the public is con­sid­ered a valid mea­sure of their truth­ful­ness. The Rus­sians cre­ated hun­dreds of fake pro­files on so­cial me­dia – from Face­book to Twit­ter. The pro­files had goals of de­con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing videos or pho­tos, adding real ac­counts as friends/fol­low­ers, hyp­ing up fake news, and most im­por­tantly, grant­ing le­git­i­macy to fake sto­ries by sat­u­rat­ing the news feed of some real user. A good ex­am­ple of that hap­pen­ing in the U.S. in­volves the story of Texas. You see Texas is a proud state and has a his­tory of try­ing to se­cede from the Amer­i­can Union (this is why Texas is called the “Lone Star State.”) But in re­al­ity, the se­ces­sion had al­ways been a fringe move­ment, and be­came some­what no­tice­able in the last decade (it’s still pretty small, with only 25% of Tex­ans sup­port­ing the idea). If the peo­ple who hold these views were left to them­selves, their ideas would be drowned out by other, more pop­u­lar ones. That’s the nat­u­ral way of fil­ter­ing out ‘crazy’ ideas. But thanks to so­cial me­dia, it is eas­ier than ever be­fore to find like­minded peo­ple to form an echo cham­ber. When mem­bers of these echo chambers ‘share’ their views with non-mem­bers, the lat­ter will see the idea to be fre­quent and ac­cept it. The Rus­sians were so suc­cess­ful at ex­ploit­ing this a page they cre­ated, ‘Heart of Texas,’ be­came the most pop­u­lar pros­e­ces­sion page on Face­book (with close to 300,000 likes be­fore be­ing shut down) and they even man­aged to get their fol­low­ers to get out of their homes to sup­port se­ces­sion. Peo­ple who had marginally held that fringe view are the first vic­tims of an ex­ploit like this. In this case, the Tex­ans who had agreed that their state should se­cede. But as the idea spreads, those who had been un­de­cided about the is­sue start to mel­low. They see that more ‘peo­ple’ now hold what was once an un­pop­u­lar view, and be­gin to ac­cept the atyp­i­cal as typ­i­cal. And more­over, even if we see that the story is fake, once it has spread, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to undo the dam­ages. To un­der­stand how that works, look at a re­cent, Bhutanese ex­am­ple. The story about cab­i­net min­is­ters us­ing gov­ern­ment he­li­copters fre­quently broke from pri­vate, sus­pi­cious Face­book ac­counts – no news agency claimed it. I first saw it posted (not shared – mind you) to a fo­rum on Face­book, by an ac­count that ev­ery­one ac­cepts as fraud­u­lent. Within the next few hours, mul­ti­ple real ac­counts had shared the story, and those in their friend net­works fol­lowed suit. Be­cause of the fre­quency of the story in the so­cial me­dia, even the more ed­u­cated, more ex­pe­ri­enced among my friend net­works had started to be­lieve the story. The gov­ern­ment re­sponded within a few hours of the story go­ing vi­ral – with the ac­tual num­bers. But by then, it was too late. Be­cause the gov­ern­ment’s de­fense was not as sexy as the ac­cu­sa­tions made against them, fewer peo­ple shared it. Of those who saw the de­fense, a few be­came more en­trenched in their be­lief that the first story was true. This is the back­fire ef­fect when the de­fense against a fake news story only ends up con­firm­ing the story to a few. At that point, the gov­ern­ment was seen as try­ing to save their be­hinds. In case of the Amer­i­cans, this phe­nom­e­non was so com­mon and wide­spread that it spawned the rise in pop­u­lar­ity of a new acro­nym – TPTB (The Pow­ers That Be). TPTB refers to an au­thor­i­ta­tive force that tries to change the public dis­course. Imag­ine the marginal­iza­tion ca­pa­bil­ity of sto­ries like this. The fake story of he­li­copter us­age by min­is­ters has al­ready neg­a­tively af­fected the public opin­ion of the gov­ern­ment. In the group whose views have been af­fected are those who never saw the de­fense and those that took the de­fense as false. As more and more sto­ries like this arise, more and more peo­ple be­come marginal­ized in their view of the gov­ern­ment. And the tar­get group is im­ma­te­rial to the suc­cess of the at­tack; it can be any­one. This is why we must keep our guards up, and I rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing: Take classes in me­dia lit­er­acy – the Bhutan Cen­ter for Me­dia and Democ­racy or­ga­nizes them reg­u­larly. Only ac­cept news sto­ries re­ported by cred­i­ble news me­dia or jour­nal­ists. No mat­ter what your view of jour­nal­ists is, re­mem­ber that all of them feel bounded by ethics. They are duty-bound to en­sure the cred­i­bil­ity of any story they break. Don’t ac­cept sto­ries just be­cause you like them – this means the sto­ries that flat­ter your side or dis­par­age your op­po­nent’s. Both are equally harm­ful, ac­cord­ing to most, but I am of the opin­ion that false flat­tery is much worse. Gen­er­ally, dis­re­gard fake so­cial me­dia pro­files that preach any­thing po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious. Google the source to check for a story’s va­lid­ity. Re­port any sus­pi­cious story to Busi­ness Bhutan – they’ll clear it up!

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