Monday July 22, 2024

Navigating the digital seas

Why would you spread fake news about death of a public intellectual who is well into his 90s and has largely withdrawn from public life?

By Dr Aamer Raza
June 26, 2024
A representational image of Fake News written on a laptop being used by a person. — AFP/File
A representational image of "Fake News" written on a laptop being used by a person. — AFP/File

Last week, when I received messages from acquaintances and friends that Noam Chomsky was no more, I searched for the news online. Reports said that Chomsky had suffered a stroke recently and was admitted to a hospital in his wife’s native Brazil. However, the public intellectual, to my great relief, was alive. The news was fake.

In this latest episode – less malignant than most – two questions occurred to me: Why do people spread such misinformation? And why do people fall for something they can so easily verify?

To the first question: I understand why people spread false information when there is a clear agenda behind it. For example, it is useful in a political campaign to disseminate falsehoods that cast your opponent in a negative light. In international hostilities and wars, propagating disinformation is an age-old tactic for undermining your opponent.

But why would you spread fake news about the death of a public intellectual who is well into his 90s and has largely withdrawn from public life? I postulate that certain people like sensationalism, and they take advantage of the gullibility of those who end up forwarding the information. On this question, admittedly, I am no wiser now than I was before.

The purpose of writing this piece is to think loudly about the second question. The individuals who sent me the news are all highly educated. Except for one, all of them possess doctoral degrees. The one without a PhD is a former civil servant. These are people you will look up to for making an informed and wise choice. If they fall for this, how do you maintain your optimism in the cybersphere sagacity of ordinary people?

The internet has been around for a while. I am part of the last generation that knew life before the internet. Without most of us noticing, our children’s lives are shaped more by the internet than by people in their immediate physical vicinity. When I think about how children are raised these days, it reminds me of the word ‘umwelt’ – the world as experienced by an organism based on its peculiar sensory capabilities and experiences. They share our spaces, but do they experience life as we experience it? They navigate a different umwelt.

For something with this level of deterministic influence on society, there is little serious conversation about the internet. Have you ever wondered about how much time you spend on the internet? Now think about the amount of time and energy put into understanding the dangers and pitfalls of the technology. When was the last time you saw a TV show about using the internet wisely? Do you remember having a conversation with your children about their use of the internet?

The technology is changing at a much faster rate than our ability to cope with it. Many users struggle with authenticating the genuineness of poorly done memes being passed around as news. One can only imagine how difficult it would become to convince people about deepfake videos and audio.

‘Al Jazeera’ recently published a story about artificial intelligence (AI) and the upcoming American presidential elections. In one episode reported by the outlet, voters received robocalls that sounded like US President Biden, telling them not to vote. In this case, the trick was easy to detect. However, as the technology develops, we are subjected to more nuanced, believable use of it.

Increasingly, users are supped by cleverly edited videos that lack context. In a viral video, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama is shown telling US Secretary of State Antony Blinken of three major devils – the United States, the Soviet Union, and Israel. The video was widely circulated even though the mere mention of the Soviet Union should have clarified that the prime minister was talking about how Albanian governments viewed the world in the past.

Similarly, in another video, Donald Trump is seen criticizing Israel. In fact, Trump remained arguably the most pro-Israel president. In this case, President Trump was only mockingly repeating Representative Ilhan Omar’s position on Israel in a tirade against her. There are countless examples. All sides use the internet deceptively to promote varying positions, and with varying effectiveness.

During periods of intense rivalries and moral certitude, societies become more intellectually vulnerable. When your conviction in your position is unalterably firm, it is easy to succumb to the seductive temptation of believing all information that supports such a position. The devil’s advocate advocates calm and reason.

What does it matter to get an occasional fact wrong if your moral compass accurately shows the true north? First, intellectual honesty, even in these times, is important. There is no greater disservice to a cause than to lie in its name. An attempt at promoting falsehood is an admission of the untenability of one’s position on facts.

Second, fabrications make reconciliation difficult. If on the evidence of the internet, you see your opponent as morally abhorrent, you tend to view the present in moral absolutes, and the future in the exclusion of the other. Points scored, while trapped in one’s echo chamber, do not count towards the competition, nor does it improve the situation.

Internet charlatans monetize divisiveness. When you listen to someone, you should question whether this person appeals to your biases against another group of people or if they have anything concrete to show as evidence. Whether they promote polarization, radicalization, and normalization of hate speech or they give you a roadmap to any place better.

In schools, we teach our children about many things. Some of it is, frankly, quite useless, or worse, harmful. However, I have yet to see a course that teaches children about the internet, the foremost influence on their lives. Even adults vulnerable to unevaluated media do not receive instruction from anywhere, except for bland and generic messages from the PTA.

The internet is a wonderful place. It can appeal to our best instincts – empathy, kindness, and compassion. It brings people together to demand justice for an animal, or to raise funds for a school for orphans. However, the cybersphere also has its pitfalls.

Stories demanding our compassion are sometimes one-sided or exaggerated. Causes asking us to jump to conclusions are sometimes more complex than they appear. A populace with limited or no critical thinking and without meaningful internet literacy will always be vulnerable.

The writer is an assistant

professor of political science at the University of Peshawar. He can be reached at: