In May 2016 when Donald Trump looked increasingly certain to win the Republican nomination for the November 2016 presidential elections, various social media users in Texas started seeing ads on their Facebook pages of an event – a rally on May 21, 2016 to ‘Stop Islamisation of Texas’. The event was organised by a group that called itself the Heart of Texas.
But that’s not it. Another Facebook group, the United Muslims of America, which had an online following of 328,000, called for a counter-protest called ‘Save Islamic Knowledge’.
Interestingly, according to some reports, US Senate investigations later found out that both the events were organised by online Russian trolls. The investigations also found out that the whole operation had supposedly cost Russian operatives $200 on Facebook ads.
Social media has emerged as a blessing, a lifeline for social movements, especially for those denied access to traditional media. It has in some ways democratised not only access to information but also the ability to broadcast and disseminate information. But the absence of gatekeepers, the inability to verify the veracity of information, diminishing credibility of the traditional sources of information and the natural tendency to accept information that confirms one’s ideological or political positions has also made social media a potent weapon, in the hands of those who wish to damage public trust.
And this is where we need to think ahead, as the election season gathers steam. Earlier this year, while speaking to the US Senate about the ‘Russian disinformation on his social network’, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg identified the upcoming 2018 polls in Pakistan as one of the events the integrity of which needed to be protected against fake news and foreign interference. He did mention that the company had developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) and enhanced the number of employees to identify fake accounts which spread fake news. However, realistically speaking, the nature and magnitude of the problem is such that Facebook can hardly deal with it on its own.
Facebook is not the only social media platform. For instance, the popular messenger application, WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) was used effectively to peddle fake news during the recent elections in the Indian state of Karnataka. The New York Times reported that while much of the messages doing the rounds on the platform were campaign-related some of them were intended to stoke sectarian tensions. One widely circulated fake news story involved the claim of the BJP that 23 of its activists had been murdered by ‘jihadis’ in Karnataka.
Another message about immigrants kidnapping children for human-trafficking resulted in the lynching of at least two people by a mob. Both the stories were debunked, but they were still circulated on WhatsApp and widely believed. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) study, that analysed 126,000 stories, found that fake news stories travelled six times faster than the rate of accurate information.
Why do some groups and movements promote fake news? The obvious and most likely answer, of course, is the promotion of a certain narrative. But that is not the only reason. Perhaps, more importantly, the purveyors of fake news wish to create an atmosphere of distrust where people do not know what to believe in any longer. Their job is made much easier by the fact that in many cases the recipients of the information welcome the false information as it fits their worldview.
It is reasonable to expect and demand social media companies to identify and remove false information. Elsewhere, such as in Malaysia, the government has criminalised the circulation of fake news, raising concerns regarding government’s control over the definition of ‘fact’. The attempts by governments and social media companies to regulate news are going to fall short. In a sphere involving hundreds of millions of active agents, the ultimate responsibility lies with the consumer. The users have to cross-check, challenge and expose fake stories.
Democracy involves decision-making by the people. And the most important decision usually made in democracies is through casting a ballot. A misinformed decision, as we have seen from recent examples, can have disastrous results on not only the future of governance but on the future of democracy itself.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Peshawar. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘Understanding Pakistan’ on patarimusic Twitter: aamer1raza