Tackling fake news



M. Ziauddin

Fake news is becoming a real menace the world over. Pakistan is no exception. Most countries are finding it increasingly difficult to uncover the manipulators that disseminate fake news. However, some cyber experts have found tools and systems that they believe would help digital investigations and investigative reporters to connect the dots to discover the sources of scams.
According to Martin J. O’Malley and Peter L. Levin(How to counter fake news—Technology can help distinguish fact from fiction: Published in Foreign Affairs Today on January 5, 2017)metadata—the data about data—can provide a digital signature to identify actors on the Internet. And the Web itself, they assert, allows one to examine timelines, serialize events, and identify primary sources. Some signatures are, however, said to be harder to find than others, but they are all there; one just needs to know where to look and what to analyze.
The Internet is constructed to resist obstructions. Picture water flowing around rocks in a river. Place a big boulder in the middle, and the current will divert around it, although the water level may rise in the vicinity of the blockage. In this analogy, the drops of water are data packets, and Internet packets are designed to remember the precise path they take to keep the aggregate flow manageable and predictable.
Consequently, network gateways—the tributaries to and channels from the aggregate flow—can always determine where a message originates. Although it is impossible to predict what will happen downstream, it is easy to know how many and which nodes a packet passed through on its way from its source to a waypoint. Indeed, in much the same way that we “authenticate” people one can hear but not see—by their phone number, by the sound of their voice, by their vocabulary, by their interests—so too can one authenticate real news. We can do this by generating (through machine learning or by brute-force pattern-matching) a signature that reconstructs the flow of a packet. One can examine the waypoints of the packets between source and destination to determine its origin (a proxy for authenticity), and one can patiently maintain a record of trustworthy signatures over time. In that way technology can quickly distinguish between uncontaminated springs of news and manufactured springs that have been poisoned with misinformation or disinformation.
Of course, attribution and anonymity are zero-sum. And not even an intelligent machine will sort perfectly. But for now, the problem is that identifying fake news is a manual process prone to human error and the duress of news-cycle urgency. As long as media and readers are unable to quickly and reliably expose fake news, it will undermine the public’s ability to govern itself. And the inability to unmask state-sponsored Internet propaganda could well pose a very real threat to national security. That is why even an imperfect automated sorting process is better than nothing.
The scourge of misinformation is as old as language itself, but Internet-fast global manipulation is relatively new. The good news is that there are methods and systems that can help ordinary users discern what’s reliable from what’s invented. Major distribution platforms—from network and cable news to web-based platforms that service billions of users—should move quickly toward sensible solutions that do not censor, but that do provide citizen consumers with a qualitative indication of reliability. Software applications will learn how to do this, much like they already, if imperfectly, catch spam in email.
“Trust but verify” is a serviceable policy framework when there’s plausible reason to trust, and ready means to verify. The erosion of these traditional norms on the Internet scuttles authentic debate on the rocks of superstition, impulse, emotion, and bias.
The fake news menace had reared its disturbing head with all its disquieting characteristics during the 2016 U.S. presidential election as Macedonian teens said to be looking to get paid for ad-clicks, Russian cyber sophisticates, on the other hand, apparently said to be looking to tilt the outcome, and some homegrown mood manipulators said to be just enjoying broadcasting outrageous and false stories packaged to look like real news.
”Their counterfeit posts were nearly indistinguishable from authentic coin and remain so, even in the face of skeptical but impatient fact-checking,” the above named article asserted.
The authors of the article said, the US intelligence community already thwarts terrorist attacks through methods known in the vernacular as “tools, processes, and procedures.”
Such work is to be aided by the newly created US Global Engagement Center, which expands a government’s repertoire and mandate to “identify current and emerging trends in propaganda and disinformation in order to coordinate and shape the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures to expose and refute misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.”
The United States now has dedicated “resources to confront adversaries’ widespread efforts to spread false narratives that undermine democratic institutions and compromise a country’s foreign policy goals” in the digital age. With modest funding and proper oversight, the US Global Engagement Center will help reach back in time and across virtual space to ensure that streams of data are not contaminated by state-sponsored misinformation or falsehoods.
The center’s special envoy and coordinator, Michael Lumpkin, told the authors of the article being discussed that “itis an agile, innovative, data-driven organization, and this is precisely the approach needed to take on the emerging threats in the information space. Unfortunately, the State Department is not known for agility or innovation. Too often we are using nineteenth century bureaucracy, with twentieth century technology to fight twenty first century adversaries. We simply have to get better in the information battle-space. We’ve made progress since ISIS first came onto the world stage, but as the challenges and adversaries morph, agility will continue to be the key.”
There are other steps Washington and the media can take now, born of Portman’s legislation, network architecture, and operational practices, which would protect the public.
In November, Merrimack College media professor Melissa Zimdars posted some tips for analyzing news sources. Her report was followed last month by Silicon Valley publisher Tim O’Reilly’s outline of a basic verification frameworkthat chronicles the steps he took to fact-check an Internet “meme” that claimed to correlate crime rates to voting trends. The story was easily proved false, but doing so required personal persistence and the ability to make creative connections between authentic root sources. Few people could, or would, invest the amount of time that Zimdars or O’Reilly recommend, but computers are not intimidated by a mountain of pattern-matching tasks. Indeed, O’Reilly’s framework is ripe for automation. From a technological perspective, these are surprisingly easy problems to address, and we can do so safely, securely, and reliably.
Today almost 40 percent of Americans get their news online. A “we report, you decide” approach to truth undermines a critical feedback loop that makes democratic governance possible. If the most reputable news organizations do not invest time and treasure in confirming sources and facts, then representative democracy becomes a mayhem of funhouse mirrors.
With new public-sector investment and private-sector innovation, we are optimistic that the United States can fight back against fake news and foreign influence in U.S. elections.
In our own context it would be in the interest of our media industry to either undertake under the umbrella of individual media organization or from the collective platform of APNS, CPNE, and PBA to set up such cyber investigative units to reach the truth rather than continue working with the dictum: We report, you decide. This is undermining the credibility and integrity of Pakistani media and it is fast losing the respectability it had once enjoyed.

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