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Guarding against fake news

  • Published at 04:56 pm May 21st, 2018
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Information distributed via social media has already been weaponized by state and non-state actors in various parts of the world. Sophisticated disinformation campaigns capable of destroying social cohesion of any society can now be carried out by folks in their teens and twenties.

The latest episode of Cambridge Analytica unfolding in the United States should be a case-study worthy of scrutiny. In this case, a 24 year old PhD student from Canada working in UK figured out a way to create political and psychological profiles of millions of Americans from their Facebook persona, and then facilitated the use of that data to target political propaganda to such tremendous effect that those voters who were targeted, ended up acting like political robots without their knowledge or consent.

Similar tactics were also used by a Russian troll factory which created thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook profiles to distribute targeted propaganda that pitted one group of Americans against another. For example, to break apart the American social fabric, White nationalists were shown videos of Black men shooting automatic rifles, rural Americans were shown videos of Muslims practicing Sharia, Black nationalists were shown images of White supremacy etc. The Russian troll factory was so effective that it even successfully organized real-life political events, where hundreds of people showed up, without ever knowing that they were attending events organized by fake profiles and online robots run afar from Russia. The same troll factory used similar tactics during the BREXIT campaigns in UK, and in several other European elections.

Given that sophisticated techniques for weaponizing the social media with fake news is now known to the world, such technique is bound to find its way into countries like Bangladesh, where the social and political divide is already severe.

In fact, fake news is already a serious problem for Bangladesh's social media. If targeting becomes more sophisticated, fake news can cause real havoc in Bangladesh. If allowed to flourish, disinformation and fake news are bound to damage all sides of the country's political divide -- possibly equally. Yet, given the short-term benefits of fake news, there will be many willing parties who will attempt to use fake news to their advantage.

One absolutely wrong approach to solving the problem of fake news and disinformation campaigns will be to contemplate some sort of ban on social media or establishment of heavy-handed censorships into the cyberspace. Countries like Iran, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia have tried censorships and outright content bans. Such heavy-handed tactics require tremendous levels of popular opinion suppression and fanciful efforts at mind-control, which rarely produce the desired results since misinformation eventually finds its targeted audience anyway. 

It may sound like a cliche, but the best way to prepare any society against the ever increasing threat of misinformation and fake news is to allow a strong and credible media culture to flourish. By producing a virtuous cycle,  credible and objective media ultimately helps all parties -- the government, the opposition, and the ordinary people. A credible and objective media, which produces timely rebuttal of fake news, provides authentic fact checks, and in-depth investigation of motivated disinformation outlets is the only sustainable way to guard against information warfare unleashed by even the most sophisticated of parties.

In the western media landscape, there are already signs that people are going back to subscribing mainstream newspapers as a means to counter the avalanche of fake news. While the Russian bots were wrecking havoc with their targeted propaganda during the last American Presidential election, The New York Times, for example, saw a ten-fold increase in paid subscriptions as more people showed their appreciation towards high-quality journalism.

A similar shift towards quality journalism may also need to take place in Bangladesh, as the propagation of disinformation and fake news continues in the country. This is a fantastic opportunity for objective journalists and media houses, and this is, in the end, the only real antidote against the scourge of fake news and disinformation operations.

Shafquat Rabbee is a finance professional who writes on global finance and geopolitics. He spent over a decade working for some of the largest global banks, ratings agencies, and management consulting firms. He is an alumnus of Cornell University and University of Miami