The on­line bat­tle for the truth

Business World - - THEWORLD -

PARIS — False in­for­ma­tion is sat­u­rat­ing po­lit­i­cal de­bate world­wide and un­der­min­ing an al­ready weak level of trust in the me­dia and in­sti­tu­tions, spread­ing fur­ther than ever on pow­er­ful so­cial net­works.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has pop­u­lar­ized the term “fake news,” us­ing it mainly as an ac­cu­sa­tion lev­eled at the me­dia, and it is in­creas­ingly used by politi­cians from Spain to China, Myanmar or Rus­sia.

“Fake news” has been gen­er­al­ized to mean any­thing from a mis­take to a par­ody or a de­lib­er­ate mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of facts.

At the same time, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of false on­line in­for­ma­tion is in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble in at­tempts to ma­nip­u­late elec­tions, no­to­ri­ously sur­round­ing Mr. Trump’s 2016 vic­tory.

MIS­IN­FOR­MA­TION

Nearly two years af­ter Mr. Trump’s shock win, de­bate is still rag­ing on the im­pact of “fake news” on the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

The buildup saw nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of hoaxes and false news sto­ries — one about Hil­lary Clin­ton’s al­leged links to a child sex ring, an­other about the Pope pur­port­edly en­dors­ing Mr. Trump — which were shared mas­sively and some be­lieve could have swung votes to tip Mr. Trump to vic­tory.

Mis­in­for­ma­tion had “a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact” on vot­ing decisions, ac­cord­ing to Ohio State Uni­ver­sity re­searchers, who ques­tioned vot­ers about whether they be­lieved cer­tain false sto­ries.

The re­searchers said it was im­pos­si­ble to prove that false in­for­ma­tion had changed the course of the elec­tion but noted it would have re­quired a change in just 0.6% of vot­ers, or 77,744 peo­ple, in three key states, to al­ter the elec­toral col­lege out­come.

Since the elec­tion, Mr. Trump has de­nounced as “fake news” any in­for­ma­tion that dis­pleases him while his aides have of­fered a mix­ture of truth and dis­tor­tions, some­times de­scribed as “al­ter­na­tive facts.”

This has hurt the cred­i­bil­ity of the US news me­dia and led some to de­scribe the cur­rent pe­riod as a “post-truth era” — an age with­out a shared re­al­ity.

“The truth is no longer seen as im­por­tant,” said John Hux­ford of Illi­nois State Uni­ver­sity, whose re­search fo­cuses on false in­for­ma­tion, adding that “lies and fab­ri­ca­tion even seem to bol­ster one’s rep­u­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal prow­ess among their core sup­port­ers.”

Some stud­ies sug­gest that more peo­ple are will­ing to be­lieve false­hoods as par­ti­san­ship has risen. A 2017 sur­vey, for ex­am­ple, showed that 51% of Repub­li­cans be­lieved that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, de­spite the hoax be­ing de­bunked dozens of times.

Many peo­ple re­ject ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion which is “dis­com­fort­ing to their self- con­cept or world­view,” noted a study by Pro­fes­sor Brendan Ny­han of Dart­mouth Col­lege in the United States and Ja­son Rei­fler of the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter in the UK.

“Some mis­in­formed in­di­vid­u­als may al­ready be at least tac­itly aware of the cor­rect in­for­ma­tion but ( are) un­com­fort­able ac­knowl­edg­ing it.”

EROD­ING TRUST

In 2018, the av­er­age level of trust in the news, across 37 coun­tries, re­mained rel­a­tively sta­ble at 44%, ac­cord­ing to a poll by YouGov for the Reuters In­sti­tute for the Study of Jour­nal­ism.

But Reuters In­sti­tute re­search as­so­ciate Nic New­man warned in text ac­com­pa­ny­ing the re­port: “Our data show that con­sumer trust in news re­mains wor­ry­ingly low in most coun­tries, of­ten linked to high lev­els of me­dia po­lar­iza­tion, and the per­cep­tion of un­due po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence.”

This is ex­ac­er­bated by the spread of false in­for­ma­tion by author­ity fig­ures. In some coun­tries this can go far. For ex­am­ple in Ukraine, where au­thor­i­ties staged the death of Rus­sian jour­nal­ist Arkady Babchenko at the end of May. Kiev said the move was jus­ti­fied to foil a real plot to as­sas­si­nate Mr. Babchenko.

The stag­ing, broad­cast in good faith by me­dia world­wide, “is a god­send for para­noid peo­ple and con­spir­acy the­o­rists. At a time when con­fi­dence in news is so low, a state play­ing with the truth in this way makes things even more com­pli­cated,” said Christophe Deloire, sec­re­tary gen­eral of jour­nal­ism watch­dog Re­porters With­out Bor­ders.

Po­lit­i­cal agen­das also af­fect the cred­i­bil­ity of the me­dia. Re­cently, the French me­dia reg­u­la­tor CSA is­sued a warn­ing to RT’s (for­merly Rus­sia To­day) French of­fice, ac­cus­ing it of mis­rep­re­sent­ing facts in a news bul­letin about Syria.

The fol­low­ing day, Rus­sia’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions watch­dog said it might strip the France 24 TV chan­nel of its Rus­sian op­er­at­ing li­cense, ac­cus­ing it of vi­o­lat­ing a Rus­sian me­dia law in­tro­duced in 2015 which re­stricts for­eign own­er­ship of me­dia com­pa­nies in Rus­sia to 20% or less.

Trust in tra­di­tional me­dia re­mains higher than for so­cial net­works, ac­cord­ing to the YouGov poll. Only 23% of those polled said they trusted the news they found on so­cial me­dia.

More than half (54%) agreed or strongly agreed that they were con­cerned about what is real and fake on the In­ter­net.

“The very fact that so many peo­ple are cir­cu­lat­ing a piece of mis­in­for­ma­tion gives it cred­i­bil­ity,” said Hux­ford, of Illi­nois State Uni­ver­sity.

A study re­leased by the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) in March found that false news spreads more rapidly on Twit­ter than real news does.

SO­CIAL NET­WORKS IN CRI­SIS

Many see Face­book as be­ing the main ve­hi­cle for spread­ing false in­for­ma­tion in re­cent years.

The Cam­bridge Analytica pub­lic re­la­tions dis­as­ter, in which Face­book ad­mit­ted that up to 87 mil­lion users may have had their data hi­jacked by the British con­sul­tancy firm, came on top of wide­spread crit­i­cism of the so­cial net­work’s propen­sity to spread and ac­cen­tu­ate large amounts of com­pletely false in­for­ma­tion.

In the US, many Face­book ac­counts and pri­vate pages that were man­aged by the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, a Rus­sia-based “troll farm,” were tar­geted by Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Mr. Trump’s cam­paign links with Rus­sia.

Face­book ac­knowl­edged on July 3 that it was fac­ing mul­ti­ple in­quiries from US and British reg­u­la­tors about the Cam­bridge Analytica user data scan­dal, af­ter its boss Mark Zucker­berg was grilled by the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment and the US Con­gress ear­lier this year.

Un­der grow­ing pres­sure, the US giant in 2018 stepped up ef­forts to com­mu­ni­cate and im­prove tech­nol­ogy for tack­ling false in­for­ma­tion. A third- party fact- check­ing pro­gram, started in De­cem­ber 2016, now has more than 25 part­ners in 14 coun­tries in­clud­ing Ar­gentina, the US, the Philip­pines, and In­done­sia.

It aims to “iden­tify po­ten­tially false sto­ries” cir­cu­lat­ing on Face­book and send them to fact- check­ers to re­view. If an ar­ti­cle is rated as false, it ap­pears lower in the plat­form’s News Feed and re­duces “fu­ture views by over 80% on av­er­age.”

One coun­try where Face­book has in­vested in the bat­tle against false in­for­ma­tion is Brazil, where there was a giant truck­ers’ strike last May.

“While the strike was on­go­ing, a lot of au­dio was recorded with a lot of false in­for­ma­tion say­ing, for ex­am­ple, that in Rio it was im­pos­si­ble to find meat,” Cristina Tardaguila, founder of the Brazil­ian Agen­cia Lupa factcheck­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“There was au­dio recorded by peo­ple sup­pos­edly con­nected to the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the strike, but they were not.”

As in a grow­ing num­ber of coun­tries, most of the mes­sages dur­ing the strike were not spread on Face­book, but on What­sApp, a mes­sag­ing ser­vice with more than one bil­lion global users, owned by Face­book.

The rise in the use of mes­sag­ing apps for news was noted in the YouGov re­port, which said that What­sApp was now used for news by around half of the sam­ple of on­line users in Malaysia and Brazil and by around a third in Spain and Tur­key.

“What­sApp will be the plat­form of the fakes dur­ing the elec­tion,” Mr. Tardaguila said, re­fer­ring to Brazil’s pres­i­den­tial polls in Oc­to­ber.

What­sApp is also ac­cused of cir­cu­lat­ing false in­for­ma­tion, some­times with tragic con­se­quences. The mes­sag­ing ser­vice has been un­der im­mense pres­sure to curb the spread of mis­in­for­ma­tion in In­dia, the com­pany’s largest mar­ket, af­ter the lynch­ing of more than 20 peo­ple ac­cused of child ab­duc­tion in the last two months.

What­sApp is start­ing to an­nounce mea­sures to tackle the prob­lem. It has taken out full-page ad­ver­tise­ments in In­dian news­pa­pers of­fer­ing “easy tips” to iden­tify fact from fi ction, and will soon launch a new fea­ture that will clearly iden­tify whether a mes­sage has been for­warded or writ­ten by the user.

But the com­pany is un­likely to go much fur­ther since it stands firmly by its pol­icy of pro­tect­ing the pri­vacy of its users with en­cryp­tion tech­nol­ogy.

Like Face­book and Twit­ter, Google has also come un­der fire for its role in spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion.

In March, the tech giant an­nounced a se­ries of projects to tackle false in­for­ma­tion and sup­port “cred­i­ble” me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, promis­ing to ded­i­cate $ 300 mil­lion to the ef­forts over the next three years.

Its search en­gine also pro­motes ver­i­fi­ca­tions car­ried out by fact-check­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions.

LOOM­ING DAN­GERS

De­spite the cre­ation of dozens of fact-check­ing ini­tia­tives in re­cent years and first steps to tackle the prob­lem from the In­ter­net giants, ef­forts to stem the pro­lif­er­a­tion of false in­for­ma­tion re­main weak.

Mean­while, tech­niques to cre­ate false in­for­ma­tion are grow­ing more so­phis­ti­cated with the de­vel­op­ment of deep fakes — ma­nip­u­lated videos that ap­pear gen­uine but de­pict events or speech that never hap­pened.

For now, deep fakes are tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult to cre­ate and have not yet had a big im­pact, but with progress they may fur­ther blur the on­line line be­tween true and false. —

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