Fake News is as old as the moment when man learnt to misrepresent his speech and actions. The first carrier of Fake News, however, as stated in Holy Scriptures, was Satan, who misrepresented the facts about the prohibited tree, leading Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit. Since then the act of misrepresentation has evolved into an art form where in real time billions can be misled with virtual impunity. So far, all societal institutions have failed to eradicate this menace.
Although the term Fake News is not new, it was labelled as False News or lies. It became popular and acquired new meanings after 2016 US elections. Fake News is a combination of twist, distortion, misrepresentation together with outright deception and lies. However, it acquires highly toxic character if motivated by corporate greed, where profit justifies all means of seeking attention (advertising) and unrestricted access (free entry to social media). Curiously, Donald Trump, who played a lead role in its popularity, has termed the entire mainstream media critical of his policies as manufacturers of Fake News.
Hillary Clinton has blamed two factors for her electoral loss: Comey’s announcement of re-opening of emails investigations and Fake News. While there is no conclusive evidence on how the election was affected, there is overwhelming evidence that Fake News, mostly against Clinton and in favour of Trump, proliferated the Internet like wild fire during the days leading up to elections. A Buzz Feed report found ‘fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others’. During three critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook (mostly pro-Trump or Anti-Clinton). By contrast, for the same period, top 20 stories from 19 mainstream publications generated only 7.3 million responses. This comparison became worse in days just before elections. In Michigan, a swing state won by Trump most surprisingly, the voters reportedly received more Fake News than professional, credible and well researched news.
Internet and social media are blamed for this malice. The statistics on the usage of Internet and social media are staggering: nearly half the world population 3.7 billion out of 7.5 billion i.e. (49%) are wired. On the social media, Facebook is an undisputed leader with a following of 1.8 billion users and combined with its affiliates Instagram, What’s App and Facebook Messaging, its outreach is simply phenomenal and leaves behind competitors (Twitter and LinkedIn) by long distances. People are spending on average 8.5 hours daily on their screens. This becomes far more disturbing when one looks at the findings of Pew Research Study: 62 percent of American adults get their news from social media, with Facebook in the lead where two thirds get their news from the platform i.e. an incredible 1.2 billion users. A Stanford University study shows that 80% of high school, college level students drawn from 10 states could not distinguish between a news story and sponsored content.
Besides US, Britain (on Brexit), France (on Election) and Germany (on Immigration) have all suffered from Fake News. Interestingly, Russia together with Wiki leaks is alleged to be a significant source of supplying such news. Fake News is also assuming a menacing character in Asia. Philippines’s 2016 presidential election and the politics thereafter are alleged to have been hugely influenced by Fake News where, curiously, Facebook is freely available despite a woefully slow and expensive access to Internet. In China, Indonesia Fake News either generated unwarranted discussions on highly sensitive security matters such as the unfounded claims of US deployment of missile system in Taiwan, or an anti-Islamic conspiracy to install a Chinese Christian as Governor of Jakarta, or possible Chinese invasion and revival of communism. East Asia runs through many fault lines such as China-Taiwan, China-Japan, Japan-South Korea and South Korea-North Korea, steeped in bitter history and carrying potential vulnerabilities to judgmental errors; these are thus a fertile ground for Fake News.
Apart from their own peculiar religious and societal challenges, India and Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to spread of Fake News. Pakistan defense minister threatened a matching response to an ostensible statement from Israeli Defense Minister, which was later proved fake, that if Pakistan were to send troops in Syria they would be nuked. Much of the debate on the so-called Indian claim of surgical strikes was conducted on the social media, which Pakistanis believed was Fake News. Pakistan is routinely charged with printing of fake Indian currency, which was also cited as a reason behind introduction of new currency notes. Pakistanis also believe Indians are planting stories and materials that would create social unrest and hurt religious beliefs.
It is astounding how free riders have turned the digital revolution on its head, which until recently was credited with Obama’s unprecedented outreach to young and minority voters in 2008 election, and Arab Spring soon thereafter. In sharp contrast, it has now become a threat to democracy, as voters are basing their choices on fake information. While Fake News factories are expanding exponentially, the mainstream media is struggling to retain its ability of produce quality reporting and analysis on the face of massive decline in advertising revenues and have to lay off a significant number of reporters and analysts. The perversity inherent in this evolution of digital media is that every single individual has been empowered to issue his or her own news paper without having to incur any cost or be responsible for its actions in the same way as the established media is, and yet reach billions of readers/audiences. All this empowerment has been made possible by those platforms (Facebook, Tweeters etc.) whose solitary focus is to allow everyone to drive on their highways and read/click on the advertising banners erected on the sideways. In his initial remarks, Zuckerberg said it was a crazy idea that Fake News influenced the election result. But after getting some heat, Zuckerberg now seems to recognise there might be a problem. “The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously,” Zuckerberg wrote in a recent Facebook post defending his company’s efforts. “We take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.” But such assurances are meaningless, given the strong profit motives that drive this industry with huge externalities, unless of course the society demands effective restrains through appropriate legislation with criminal penalties for offenders.
Washington Post has recently adopted a new motto: democracy dies in darkness. Indeed, Fake News is propagation of darkness, bereft of any truth and thus a serious threat democracy. Barak Obama, standing alongside Angela Merkel, warned that that the ease with which people can propage fraudulent news stories to undermine democratic principles. In the context of restricting entry into banking industry, Schumpeter had famously remarked that the history of capitalism would turn into history of chaos unless those licensed are carefully screened. How can the human society allow bots and trolls to put at risks not just elections but also human lives and national defences? With the advent and rapid proliferation of Fake News it is incumbent on telecommunication authorities in individual countries as well as collectively to evolve a coordinated approach (under the United Nations) to deal with this affliction.
For a number of reasons, Pakistan has to take serious steps to safeguard its national security interests against the outbreak of Fake News: First, at a place where religious sentiments run high, it would be easy to spread rumours about attacks on majority beliefs triggering immediate and often violent response and thereafter to project a distorted image of its people; Second, in the presence of nuclear deterrence, those aiming to harm the country would find it more feasible to undertake psy-ops (psychological operations) aimed “to exploit human vulnerabilities in enemy governments, militaries and populations to pursue national and battlefield objectives” than to plan any hostile action. Psy-ops are not limited to Fake News only. Digital morphing where voice, video and photo can all be distorted and transformed to copy familiar voices and images aimed at disruption and disorder. Third, the digital world knows no boundaries and hence enemies can sit in the safety of their homes while attacking their target: everything connected to Internet is subject to invasion from malicious forces.
Notwithstanding the objections raised by the civil society and experts in the field, The Pakistan Electronic Crime Act, 2016 is a start of a welcome process. More needs to be done not just to address those objections but also to deal with the problem of Fake News. In fact, the law has not even put any definition of Fake News nor has burdened the carriers who proliferate it on the social media.