The fake news era

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M Ziauddin

‘Fake news’ is not new. In fact, the recorded history of ‘disinforma-tion wars’ dates back to ancient Rome. But according to Julie Posetti and Alice Mathews (History of ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation, published on the website of International Centre for Journalists—ICFJ—on July 23, 2018)the 21st century has seen the weaponization of information on an unprecedented scale. Powerful new technology makes the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by anti-democratic governments, populist politicians and dishonest corporate entities.
“We now inhabit a world where malicious actors and state propagandists can use ‘computational propaganda,’ ‘sock-puppet networks,’ ‘troll armies,’ and technology that can mimic legitimate news websites and seamlessly manipulate audio and video to impersonate legitimate sources. Then, there are the profiteers making a living from creating fraudulent content for viral distribution on social platforms.”
Combined, these developments present an unprecedented threat level that sees journalists and their work turned into targets.
The emerging ‘information arms race’ is a big story. But it is important to understand the historical context when examining and reporting on contemporary manifestations of the 21st century phenomenon of ‘information disorder.’
The ICFJ plots the evolution of the current crisis on an international timeline, highlighting historic moments stretching from Cleopatra to Cambridge Analytica. Octavian waged a propaganda campaign against Antony that was designed to smear his reputation. This took the form of “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets.” These slogans painted Antony as a womaniser and a drunk, implying he had become Cleopatra’s puppet, having been corrupted by his affair with her. Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor and “fake news had allowed Octavian to hack the republican system once and for all.”
The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1493 dramatically amplified the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation, and it ultimately delivered the first-large scale news hoax – ‘The Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835. The New York Sun published six articles about the discovery of life on the moon, complete with illustrations of humanoid bat-creatures and bearded blue unicorns.
With the advent of radio and television in the 20th century, satirical news evolved, sometimes being mistaken as the real thing in news consumers’ minds.
Finally, the arrival of the internet in the late 20th century, followed by social media in the 21st century, dramatically multiplied the risks of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda and hoaxes.
Both errors and fraudulent content now go viral through peer-to-peer distribution (many-to-many communication), while news satire is regularly misunderstood and re-shared as straight news by unwitting social media users.
In this environment, where trust becomes polarised around what “news” aligns with their views, many news consumers feel entitled to choose or create their own ‘facts’.
In March 2018, a whistleblower revealed that a massive dataset drawn from millions of Facebook users had been exploited by a Cambridge University psychology academic (working privately), and a network of businesses that operated under the umbrella of ‘Cambridge Analytica’ – a company specialising in psychological profiling and micro-targeted political messaging. The company used the data to target specific sets of voters in the lead up to the USA’s 2016 Presidential Election. The company “cheated” the 2017 Brexit vote. The company closed down in the wake of the disclosures.
In 2018 an independent investigative journalist of India Rana Ayyub suffered extreme harassment from the mass circulation of false information aimed at countering her critical reporting. Ayyub was targeted with disinformation about her on social media, including ‘deep-fake’ videos that falsely suggested she had made pornographic films, as well as direct rape and death threats. She identified these attacks as having links to the Indian Government.
Recently one of Pakistan’s leading anchors, Asma Shirazi was subjected to almost similar kind of harassment by on-line trolls.
In 2016 after reading a story on a false news site reporting that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s Defence Minister tweeted: “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a nuclear state too.”
The fictitious story contained a headline with multiple errors and the article misidentified the Israeli Defence Minister. In response to the Pakistan Defence Minister’s tweet, the Israeli Defence Ministry tweeted: “Reports referred to by the Pakistani Def Min are entirely false.”

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