Fake News in the Virtual World

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Keep calm or freak out?

In his maiden visit to India, even Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey couldn’t escape from questions over fake news which has become the most talked about subject in the year 2018; not just in India but across the globe. The role of dedicated fake news campaigns in the 2016 US elections is widely debated and around this time, the term gained everyone’s attention and was included in many techno-urban dictionaries as the word of the year. The Government of India and Election Commission too are worried about the same with the next General Elections due in 2019, and are critically taking up the matter with top social media firms and their CEOs, so that pre-election proliferation of fake news doesn’t influence the election results.

Misinformation or fake information can be of various kinds but not limited to: politically motivated campaigns during elections, polarised messages, provocative or sensational content to drive hate crime agenda, viral videos & memes inadvertently targeting innocent people to make crowd pleasing content for self-popularity on social media, or tampered/clipped videos or images that are misconstrued by masses due to missing or distorted surrounding context, hoaxes and false news in time of urgencies and calamities. All this kind of information misleads and misguides people, at times brainwashing them to act in congregation without thinking.

Though deliberately spreading fake or untrue information through various communication channels to achieve one’s ulterior motives has existed since the beginning of mankind, but due to availability of various online social media and Internet based, free of cost communication messengers; this has become an unstoppable menace.

It has become easy to broadcast mis-information to a much wider audience through dedicated social media campaigns, as

  • its free, unwarranted and unchecked,
  • designed for decentralized content generation by users and can be effortlessly ‘shared’ to individuals or to groups
  • allows multimedia content which delivers much stronger emotional and mental influence as compared to plaint text,
  • 24*7 availability and accessibility from just a click on your smartphones

And as if this was not enough, now we have artificial bots with human like writing and speech styles being coupled with social media in various ways like conversation agents, artificially generating posts and contents, etc. to disseminate false or motivated content.

Almost all the social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and popular messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Hike and the likes are grappling to curb the growing menace of misinformation being spread through their platforms. This has become one of their biggest worries as many countries and governments have reprimanded them and directed them to design technology-based solutions to control the spread of fake news and misinformation in real time before it causes damage to life and infrastructure. This is because in recent times, we have witnessed many incidents where mass broadcast of fake news and misinformation has caused many mob lynching incidents that have claimed over two dozen innocent lives in India in 2018 itself. As per a BBC news article, similar number of killings of innocent people have been caused in Plateau State in Nigeria due to false information and images on Facebook. Apart from this, there have been many hoax news incidents during emergency situations like Kerala floods, bomb blasts, Kashmir militancy upsurge, etc. which can further exacerbate panic and hysteria due to unverified rumours. There are situations when messages without any scientific or logical reasoning are shared on different media unnecessarily confusing and perplexing people e.g. during demonetization in 2016 that the new currency notes have GPS based trackers, or receiving calls from a particular number shall cause the phone to explode, etc.

More specifically this problem is intractable for messaging platforms like WhatsApp where communication between senders and receivers is encrypted and the platform finds it extremely difficult to devise technological solutions as the platform cannot decrypt or view the content being transmitted. The Government of India has been demanding WhatsApp to provide software-based solutions for its platform to firstly detect and control the spread of misinformation, secondly to track the origin of such messages. Though the company has rejected the later demand, however it has provided an interim solution for the former. The latest version released afterwards now limits the number of recipients of a broadcast message to five at the maximum which basically slows down the transmission rate, as now the sender cannot ‘select all’ it’s contacts while sending the message. Along with this, an icon stating ‘Forwarded’ is displayed on the messages that are not an original composition but a forward. WhatsApp is also setting up a grievance redressal team in India. WhatsApp and Facebook are also educating people to spot fake news through informative fliers and infographics on their platform and even in local dailies.  Even Twitter mentioned during the Townhall in New Delhi that the micro-blogging platform is taking multi-variate steps including exploring AI to detect and control the spread of misinformation before the 2019 General Elections in India; however, was unsure whether any perfect solution existed for the same.

The above solutions are by no means sufficient to tackle and solve the problem-at-hand and it is necessary to design smarter technological solutions using artificial intelligence and machine learning to detect such messages. In the last two decades, we have seen countless scenarios where AI/ML based solutions have been leveraged to solve various classification kind of challenges on ICT (Internet & Communication Technologies) tools and platforms, the most common and efficient one being the spam filter in our email clients. AI/ML have also been used for content personalization, recommendations of multimedia content and pages/channels to follow, as well as suggestions for friends/connections. Similarly, now is the time to leverage its capabilities for detecting fake news & misinformation, motivated false propaganda campaigns, etc. Though a sizeable onus definitely lies on the social media and messaging platforms to devise technical solutions for controlling the unabated spread of fake news, the citizens and media firms must also act responsibly and must not post/share information without verifying its credibility and source.

Join us at AISS 2018 for a much anticipated debate on this topic – ‘Fake News: Society or Platform?’ Register Now: https://aiss2018.dsci.in/

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