Unreal Reality!

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The business of fake news has reached such a level that when the death of the kingpin of US fake news manufacturer Paul Horner was announced, one top commentator said: “But what if he’s not dead? Nothing’s true. Everything’s true!

GEETA SINGH

GEETA SINGH

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

Travel writer Horatio Clare put it succinctly: “Myth-making is a powerful business.”

Recently, the country’s first citizen, President Ram Nath Kovind, became the latest victim of this deadly and treacherous web of fake news. A few days ago a video describing the wedding of the daughter of an IAS officer, TV Somnathan in the PMO in Delhi, went viral and caused serious disruption. The message with the clip said: “Please keep an eye on the President of India, please see how the President is getting the treatment in India.” It went on a whirlwind tour of different social media networks. In the video, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen with a person who appears to be President Ram Nath Kovind, who is not taken care of by the hosts. And many social media personalities, including leaders of Aam Admi Party like Ashutosh and Somnath Bharti, tweeted and strongly condemned it.

Later, the Rashtrapati Bhawan issued a statement that the person reportedly shown as the President was not him. The moment this came to light, both Ashutosh and Bharti deleted their tweets. The person seen in the video was the Governor of Tamil Nadu Banwarilal Purohit, who is somewhat a look-alike of the President.

Let’s talk about another famous video getting viral where an American toddler was seen responding US President Trump asking: “Who do you like the most”. The toddler apparently said: “Modi!” This video was circulated widely by the fans and followers of Modi on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter account Vinod Taparia and Divya Saxena Rastogi, whom PM Modi follows, shared the video. The video was actually dubbed. As per Washington Times, the actual incident was from a Trump election rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on 10th October 2016. The report states, “Toddler stole the show at the Republican presidential candidate’s latest appearance in Pennsylvania. In the original video Trump was seen asking the kid, “Do you want to go back with your mommy and daddy or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?” and the boy responded with, “Trump”. The video watermarked with BBC was actually faked and edited on the editing app Madliz.com. Well, here’s what we are talking about: the growing menace of fake news.

Faking Polity

Not only this, many other false reports such as the GPS Chip in the new notes of 2000, the bachha chor gang (child abductor gang), the declaration of best anthem to our national anthem by UNESCO, the shortage of salt in the country, etc. These were all fake reports that became viral on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Many of such false news had led to violence. Small cities and towns like Jaipur, Saharanpur, Jharkhand or Muzaffarnagar become the centre of painful stories. Like rumours about bachha chor triggered the mob in Jharkhand and 7 people were killed. Distorted and false reports about Rohingya Muslims instigated the anti-Rohingya fervour. Many times false stories have also hampered the health drives. A rumour about the measles and rubella vaccine thwarted a government immunization drive in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The message falsely claimed that the vaccine is intended to make children from minority communities impotent. This ‘adulterated thinking’ has now spread to every corner of the world.

Lately, in connection with the investigation of Russian intervention in the US elections, Trump claimed that fake news is working more and more nowadays, but ironically the credit for the rebirth of fake news also goes apparently to him. Trump regularly used the term ‘Fake News’ to criticise media reports. During the presidential elections last year, Trump has consistently used it to counter the one-sided coverage for Hillary Clinton. He used this term almost every time for the American media. He did not spare any media group.

But many media groups suspect it helped to deliver him the White House. One story, widely shared on social media in the run-up to the American election, alleged that the Clinton Foundation bought $137m in illegal arms. Widely used by Trump made the word ‘fake news’ most popular term of the year. Within a one year, it was used so much worldwide that it has been selected as the Word of the Year in 2017. The UK’s Collins Dictionary has rewarded it the word of the year, after analysing its global reach. The dictionary found that in the last 12 months usage of the word fake news has increased by 365 per cent. According to the Dictionary, the term Fake News has reduced the confidence of news reporting in the society.

Innocent Victims

As the magnitude of fake news on social media sites is gaining, researchers fear that people can detect a fake image of a real-world scene only 55 per cent of the time. Even then, they can only tell what is wrong with the image only 45 per cent of the time. The high-quality of these fake images were to be blamed for this, said the researchers’ team from the University of Warwick. “This has serious implications. People are exposed to these fakes on a daily basis through social networking sites, the Internet and the media,” said Sophie Nightingale, researcher and lead author. Over 700 participants in the online test were shown 10 random images that included five manipulated images and five original ones.

With various smartphone applications, editing and morphing of images, videos are super-easy to make these days. Social media armies can keep dishing out such fake news all day. Whereas at the same time, there are virtually no applications accessible to the users or common men which can help in detection of such fakery. These hoaxes demonstrate yet again as to how easy it is to mislead people on social media. “We found that people were better at detecting physically implausible manipulations but not any better at locating these manipulations, compared to physically plausible manipulations,” explained Derrick Watson, study co-author, in a paper published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.

As per data, approximately more than 2.33 billion and 330 million users spend hours on Facebook and Twitter respectively daily. These users are more vulnerable to fake news stories or misinformation campaigns.

Face Value

Right now Facebook is the most powerful media platform in the world, so it may influence users easily. Initially, Facebook’s head Mark Zuckerberg denied the idea of influencing the US elections through false information by calling it a “crazy idea”. But Facebook has now retracted and eaten back the words saying they regret the comments. Hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, probably run from Russia, spent about $125,000 on ads during last year’s US election campaign. The social network admitted to receiving $US100,000 from “fake news” purveyors intent on stirring up divisive issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration, gun control and race relations. According to a study from Stanford University, fake news websites received 159 million visits during the last year’s US election, and other research has shown that the most widely shared news stories during the election were fakes. The majority of such news and stories were also favouring Trump.

Last September, 38-year-old writer Paul Horner was found dead after a suspected drugs overdose. He was notoriously popular for peddling several false news like Barack Obama was both gay and a radical Muslim during the 2016 US election campaign in favour of Trump on Facebook. He published false stories on other websites he had set up as well and later claimed that he was the reason Donald Trump was elected in November. Most of his false stories were picked up and shared by the campaign managers of Trump.

Interestingly, faking has reached such a level that on hearing Horner’s death, Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of the fact-checking website snopes.com, called Horner’s death “alleged”, adding she was only half joking. “I want to write an obituary,” she said, “but what if he’s not dead? Nothing’s true. Everything’s true. It’s amazing.”

Black History

Though internet may not be old, the history of fake news is ancient. In Europe, during the 15th century, the much false news was circulated against Jews. As per Politico magazine, the fake news hit Trent, Italy, on Easter Sunday, 1475. A 2½-year-old child named Simonino had gone missing, and a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, gave a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had murdered the child, drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Passover. The rumours spread fast. In response, the Prince-Bishop of Trent, Johannes IV Hinderbach, immediately ordered the city’s entire Jewish community to be arrested and tortured. Fifteen of them were found guilty and burned at the stakes. The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar atrocities. Recognising a false story, the papacy intervened and attempted to stop both the story and the murders. But Hinderbach refused to meet the papal legate, and feeling threatened, simply spread more fake news stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. After this many hateful religious fake news against Jews and other communities went viral. By the 18th century, the fake news was back again, playing with the racial sentiments and fears against Blacks in America in producing false stories. With the rise of the internet in our century, fake news has become a powerful force again. Social networking sites, which are not media companies, are challenging all journalistic norms. Digital news has brought yellow journalism back to the front. Another chronic problem the world is facing with fake news or false information is its numerous editions. Now many players are active on social media for many reasons. The earlier fake news was limited to satire or sarcasm, but these days along that, there are misleading or morphed adverts, supportive one-sided campaigns of political parties or leaders, state-sponsored information and commercially driven sensational news going viral.

Their primary goal is to drive web traffic and to generate advertising revenue. More importantly, media somehow becomes a tool for such players to influence the common man. According to the survey of Freedom House on internet freedom, out of 65 nations, in 33 countries they found evidence of pro-government media. Thirty governments are found in paying pro-government commentators for online promotion up from 23 the last year. And in 16 countries fake news dominated around elections.

Global Alert

After facing the scrutiny worldwide Facebook, Google and Twitter are enlisting the fact checkers fact checkers to check disputed stories. Twitter says it has become better at dealing with bots, and Google has promised better algorithms to control YouTube.

The rumours market has also created a small industry in the form of real investigators, who are establishing websites to dismiss the myths that viral on the internet. Prateek Sinha, a former software engineer, started a fact-checking website Altnews.in, whereas Pankaj Jain is known as ‘Social Media Hoax Slayer’. But in India, a highly populated country, considering the rapid penetration of smart mobile phones and the rise in the use of social media, much of fake news spreads at a lightning speed through WhatsApp. Without any strict uniform regulation and guidelines, policing on this is not possible. More than 355 million internet users are prone to the risky business of faking. According to a report in March by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), the number of internet users in India was expected to cross 450 million by June 2018, 241 million have Facebook accounts and over 200 million are on WhatsApp. Many of these users have been mobile-first users of the internet, so they are not aware of the fake email forwards and online frauds of the desktop era. They tend to think the messages they get

are genuine.

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