The advent of fake news across the world can be linked to algorithms used by search engines, websites and social media. This results in false or manipulated information spreading across the world, at times, with dire consequences.
The term “Fake news” has become increasingly popular due to its link to debates surrounding the democratic process and free speech in the information age. US President Donald Trump has taken credit for coining the term “fake news.” He has repeatedly criticized the media for what he deemed biased and “fake news,” attacking respected media outlets such as the New York Times and CNN.
The term has been used by authoritarian leaders, such as Philippines’ Duterte and Venezuela’s Maduro, in order to suppress and discredit unfavourable coverage. In a move that has been criticized as an attack on free press, Malaysia recently passed a law that allows jail terms of up to six years for spreading “fake news”. Singapore has also announced its intention to implement anti fake news legislation.
A more accurate use of the term refers to news stories that intentionally spread misinformation or false facts. In recent years, the growth of social media has enabled the spread of misinformation owing to the potential to cause social unrest and increase sectarian tensions. In some instances, such as the Britain’s EU referendum, and the 2016 US Presidential elections, influence and misinformation campaigns are thought to have had a significant impact on the outcome of the vote.
Considering that social media is now a primary source for news and information, several dangers surrounding the phenomenon of “fake news” are growing. Determining the measure and countering false news in the digital age is presently still in the early stages. In a study by Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, and David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and an associate of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, it was concluded that a multidisciplinary initiative is required to understand how the internet spreads content and how readers process news and information.
An "algorithm" is similar to a guidebook that helps users navigate across the vast expanses of the internet to acquire desired data or information. It can be described as a ‘set of instructions.’ Tech giants, such as Google and Facebook amongst others, rely on multiple algorithm combinations in order to function. When a user attempts to search on Google, the engine then relies on very complex algorithms to determine the results and the order of their appearance.
However, they are increasingly used to spread misinformation, manipulated information and fake news.
“Algorithms can help us find our way through the huge amount of information on the internet,” said Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition. “But the problem is that we only see what these algorithms — and the companies that use them — choose to show us.” Thus, it could be a result of manipulation or stories (even when not true) that could drive up more traffic.
A new study published in Science in 2018 revealed that false news online travels “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.” It also noted that the effect is more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. Falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth. The study also stated that false news reached 1,500 people about 6 times faster than the truth.
In organising online content, algorithms also tend to create “filter bubbles,” insulating users from opposing points of view, similar to algorithms for targeted voters which brought Facebook under the scanner. Experts have also stated that due to these algorithms, radicalized viewpoints are also brought to the forefront and made accessible to a larger audience, thus, making them dangerous.
Tech companies like Google and Facebook have come under increased scrutiny in the recent years. The European Union is currently drafting legislation that will enable law enforcement to demand access to electronic criminal evidence: both within the EU, and across the world. Additionally, in June 2017, British PM Theresa May and the President of France Emmanuel Macron launched a campaign which aims to hold tech companies accountable for not aggressively countering inflammatory content found in the internet.
At the World Economic Summit in Switzerland, Google and Facebook announced plans to develop AI systems that would notify users about dubious content. However, such algorithms are not foolproof because they lack the ability to assess the accuracy of purported facts within articles. Moreover, opinions and unquantifiable statements easily pass through natural language processing. For example, “Modi is the worst Indian PM” cannot entirely be quantified based on existing data owing to the nature of the claim.
Our assessment is that governments across the world should accept the reality of fake news and address it as a top priority as it has the power to derail agenda. Fake news has been used to incite violence in many nations, including India. Thus, governments should work on contingencies in case fake news incites violence; but also work closely with those in the tech industry. It is imperative to arrive at a technological solution that is feasible, viable and can be implemented.