From Donald Trump to Jawaharlal Nehru to Mr. Bean, from Indian Currency to Salt shortage in India, you name it and there is fake news created and propagated every minute as we are reading this. So what is fake news? Though the phrase “fake news” would have become famous in 2016 but the concept can be traced as old as the Mahabharata (The Ashwathama story “अश्वत्थामा हतो नरो वा कुंजरो वा”).
Fake news is a neologism, used to refer to fabricated news. Fake news originated in traditional news media but has now spread to online media. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media or fake news websites, has no basis in fact, but is used as a tool to manipulate public perception.
Fake news do not happen on their own but are planned by the corporate communication & Public Relations department of corporations, political war rooms, social media activists etc. The potency of fabricated news came into focus after the 2016 US presidential elections. According to buzzfeed, the fake news on Facebook drew more engagement than breaking news from major news media such as The New York Times, CNN, NBC News, or The Wall Street Journal. Fake news spreading has become easier now because of the power of digital medium to carry the news to the people homes and mobile phones. The public at large than plays their role to viral the news further to many. Technology makes the spread of ideas faster and more scalable, making it easier for propaganda material to reach more people. The Internet is only the latest communications technology used to spread propaganda. It allows a small number of individuals to influence and manipulate the opinions of a larger audience. In addition, the targeting and crowd dynamics created by social media allows for fake news to spread faster than ever before.
As quoted by Russell Crowe in the movie “Insider”, “cigarettes are a delivery device for nicotine”. Similarly Facebook, twitter and other social media channels are the delivery device for fake news. TV News channels are trying their efforts to clean up these viral fake news and have special programming like “Viral Sach – ABP News” etc. Fake news is a means to an objective, not an objective in and of itself. While many news channels and print media can be responsible for biased reporting but what differentiates fake news campaigns is that they are often generally based on fabricated, non-existent facts and often utilize shocking, clickbait headlines in order to attract the reader’s attention.
Knowing that the attention span of the Internet user is very short, fake news creators use this to manipulate the public. India is more vulnerable to fake news, as the fake news is viral through social media. India has over 200 million of WhatsApp’s monthly active users, Facebook users in India stands at 241 million compared to the US’s 240 million, and around 25 million Twitter accounts.
Fake news can be manufactured with the help of many tools, though most are underground forums but there is legitimate tools like content marketing, which are used to disseminate fake news and manipulate public opinion. Services such as Black Hat Search Engine Optimization (SEO), click fraud, and the sale of human and bot traffic. But the biggest factor behind the success of fake news operations in 2016 was their high level of social engagement. The modern Internet user is overloaded with information and generally shows a very short attention span. This influences how headlines and images are created and used in fake news they are designed to grab a user’s attention at glance. Point to be noted here is that total Facebook engagement for fake news was higher than mainstream news during the three months before the US elections in November 2016. On Twitter, the preferred strategy is to make the story appear to be spread by as many users as possible. Twitter posts are often ranked by the number of retweets, quotes, and likes, and Twitter bots are often used to retweet or quote messages. In other cases, bots simply post the same message without much variance in the text: the same text can be used in all the tweets. Such patterned behavior makes it easy to identify them, and Twitter is successfully using these patterns to block some abusive accounts.
Post the US elections the social media biggies are working on measures to identify and block fake news. Google is working on a policy change to prevent websites that misrepresent content from using its AdSense advertising network, while Facebook updated its advertising policies to spell out that its ban on deceptive and misleading content applies to fake news. It also has updated its algorithm to remove fake news from its platform. The growing phenomenon of fake news is being fought with a growing arsenal of Fake News checkers and algorithms. Even journalist like Ravish Kumar, NDTV are running programming on exposing fake news.
Fake News is still evolving, and has the potential to use Artificial Intelligence, image and sound-generation with dangerous effectiveness. Video and audio, which is convincing enough, can be created digitally. It would become essentially impossible to differentiate between real and fake video in times to come. For the time being, Fake News is here to stay.
Published in Business World Magazine on: July 28th, 2017