#FakeNews: A Tale Of Two Civilizations
Civilization as we know it stands upon the shoulders of Ancient Greece. The foundations of our ideas around democracy, liberty, politics, freedom, justice and ethics blossomed out of ancient Greek society. In 481 0 BC, ten years before the birth of Socrates, the Zoroastrian King Darius and his son Xerxes had conquered lands between present-day Punjab, to the East. Their Persian Achaemenid Empire then set their sights on Greece, to the west. Having laid siege to Athens and occupied it, the rest of Greece was ripe for the taking, until something happened that would change the course of the Achaemenid empire, and with it, the fate of the world. The Greek Commander Thermistocles forged and dispatched letters to Xerxes containing snippets of fake news about the remainder of Greece. These included references to troop positions, morale and strengths. When the Persians advanced their attack in haste, the Greeks lay in ambush, and won the subsequent Battle of Salamis. The Persian Empire never set foot in Greece thereafter. Greece was liberated, and in this single ironic twist of fate, modern civilization owes its existence to #FakeNews.
Following the two-thousand years of human civilization that ensued, today’s hyper-connected society driven by alerts, notifications and instant messages finds itself at an unprecedented level of risk to this dark art of disinformation.
As instant-messaging grew over the past decade, false stories began as relatively benign fan-fiction, likely written by jingoistic and somewhat over-zealous purveyors of propaganda. Most users would have undoubtedly come across messages containing UNESCO’s various declarations awarding accolades to India’s great Prime Minister, National Anthem, Currency Note, National Flag, and my personal favourite, the declaration of the Idli as the healthiest breakfast.
The weaponization of disinformation over social media and instant messaging platforms in the past few years, however, has taken a dangerous turn. Over the last year in India, over 30 murders of alleged child kidnappers have been linked to stories that were spread on WhatsApp. Traditional media have also taken cues from stories that have originated over WhatsApp, such as this Zee News report that famously claimed that the new Rs. 2000 note contains Nano GPS technology which is scanned by passing satellites. Few months ago, a mob lynching made international headlines, after rumors of the accused being child kidnappers were circulated on WhatsApp.
In evaluating the consequences of major content platforms taking an active involvement in the veracity of information, it’s important to first broaden one’s perspective to the full spectrum of ‘Fake News’ itself. As the American Economist Eric Weinstein puts it, the taxonomy of Fake News can be broken up into a four-fold deconstruction of narrative-driven, algorithmic, institutional and false nature(s).
An appreciation of the complexity of the problem is perhaps best gained in the following example. On August 13 2018, news broke of a meeting between former CNN anchor and Facebook’s current Head of News – Campbell Brown, and Australian journalists. The Australian news media reported that during the meeting, Brown declared that Facebook would, “revitalize journalism”, and suggested that if the media did not cooperate, she would be, “holding hands with your business dying in a hospice.” When the story broke, Facebook denied that the comment was being accurately reported, and suggested that the words were misrepresented and taken out of context. Campbell’s other comment that Mark Zuckerberg, “doesn’t care about giving too much leeway to publishers” was denied outright by Facebook. In the aftermath. the media and Facebook found themselves at odds with each other over what actually happened at the meeting. The role of the media is to report the facts. The proposed role of Facebook is to provide a platform that’s free of incorrect facts.
Given these paradoxical constraints, consumers of the platform, and of the news media are left to decide the truth about what actually happened at the meeting, which was, ironically, about the future of Facebook’s relationship with the media against the backdrop of the recent avalanche of #FakeNews.
Drawn to the allure of a potentially massive userbase, Google is reported to be building a censored version of its search engine to be launched in China. In this case, there is no misunderstanding. The company behind one of the world’s most popular content platforms (YouTube) and the world’s biggest search engine, is willingly conspiring with an authoritarian communist regime in order to satisfy its local laws, many of which advocate the distortion, censorship and complete reframing of historical events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Zooming out, while the scourge of Fake News has changed the course of history, and even led to the killing of innocents through mob violence, and has likely driven people apart arising out of arguments over pushpak vimanas in Indian family WhatsApp groups; its scope and risk are far wider than the dangers posed by the occasional false story, when the algorithmic, narrative and institutional aspects are considered. Furthermore, the corporations who control our social and news media have repeatedly proven their apathy, incompetence and complete lack of integrity, as far as their commitment to the truth is concerned, vis-a-vis their business goals.
Recently, WhatsApp launched its first ever television ad campaign in India, taking square aim at the issue of Fake News, encouraging users to be skeptical and responsible when forwarding dubious stories. In the same breath, and in a more chilling development, however, WhatsApp has seemingly begun to soften its stance towards privacy by engaging with the government towards the possibility of tracing messages to their owner – a draconian provision ripe for abuse against political dissidents and critics of the establishment.
In abandoning the ideals of individual responsibility and surrendering to an authoritarian solution to the issues posed by #FakeNews, we condemns ourselves to sail to the shores of Greece, like battle-ready boatmen in service of a doomed empire, without the slightest hint of the danger that truly awaits.
Artwork courtesy of Samarth Bhagwat