Humans today are living in an era of information. It is an age in the history of humanity characterized by a massive inflow and easy data availability. In earlier times, information used to be a rare commodity that quite often compelled people to make an effort in its pursuit. It was quite common to travel between cities and regions, in search of knowledge. But the advent of globalization, the internet and the integration of digital devices in our way of living has made it available with just a click.
While on the one hand, it makes lives easier as all the information one would ever want to access has become available on fingertips. On the other hand, the abundance of data has caused information overload – a condition in which there is “excessive flows and amounts of data or information that can lead to detrimental computational, physical, psychological, and social effects”. Such access has also led to infomania – “the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information.”
Furthermore, with social media platforms becoming an integral part of our lives, their never-ending feeds bombard our minds with information and commercials. The onslaught is having a significant impact on our thought processes and behaviors. It is a constant practice that is, as a result, shaping our perceptual worlds.
Such accessibility has also brought with it the element of vulnerability. The algorithms that drive social media platforms are designed to keep the users glued to their screens by identifying their interests using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). The platforms keep showing the users the kind of information they would like to see based on their inclinations. Hence reinforcing the users’ dominant beliefs on one end and manipulating the same at the other end – through the data that these consumers provide in their consumption of these digital platforms.
Today, the major problem is that what the users or consumers accept as the truth might be misinformation or disinformation. And these two combined, give rise to the notion of fake news, with social media being the central arena through which it is propagated. The acceptance of misinformation as quasi-reality by the masses is pushing humanity into a post-truth era. Currently, facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than the perceptions of reality and appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.
Besides, the thing about fake news is that it affects states and individuals alike. It has the power to influence state behaviour, polarise the public opinion, cause chaos and sow seeds of disdain among societies. Social media has also empowered individuals and networks so that the flow of information, which was once centralised under state control, has now become decentralised. Today, every individual can broadcast anything and harness the power of the cyberspace.
A potent example of the power of social media can be seen in the case of the Arab Spring. In many Arab countries, web platforms empowered individuals to mobilise against their authoritarian regimes, which even led to the collapse of some governments. Likewise, the Russian disinformation campaigns during the annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysian MH17 over Ukraine are excellent case studies. The propaganda tactics employed by Islamic State (IS) can also be quoted as an instance. We also have the perfect example of Cambridge Analytica, which used misinformation and fake news to influence the behaviours of the general public.
The inception of deepfakes has further amplified the subsequent threat. Pictures, audios and videos can now be manipulated, making it difficult to distinguish between actual, and doctored or computer-altered media. Although there have been efforts to spot the difference, the concern is that there is no foolproof way yet to determine if some audio/visual data is a deepfake or a real one. The points that distinguish between the two are patched as soon as they are identified.
The actual statements and happenings alone can have immense implications for the stock markets, public sentiments and so forth. What impact would the deepfakes of world leaders have, showing them making statements, declaring wars or even launching nuclear attacks, while none of it is even real? There would be ubiquitous chaos emanating from the online social networks to offline human interaction. Stuxnet did the same from an online setting to an offline environment.
It is due to the intensity of the risk that today along with nuclear war and climate change, misinformation, fake news and deepfakes are described as significant threats to the human civilisation by the Doomsday Clock – a globally recognised indicator of the vulnerability of human existence, maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
In order to deal with this pressing issue, efforts are needed on both individual and collective levels. First of all, awareness should be raised among the general population to engage in fact-checking any information before believing it as a reality. Secondly, social media giants should place effective and unbiased fact-checking mechanisms on their platforms. Thirdly, governments should invest in research and development (R&D) to find smart solutions and create official fact-checking channels for the public. They should also keep the conduct of social media giants under transparent supervision. And lastly, states should collectively engage in efforts for a coordinated response to mitigate this threat.
These efforts can be a good starting point; however, it is not easy to deal with the issue. The debate is on-going, with more questions than answers. Who will decide if the news is fake or real – the governments, the people or the social media giants? How would it be identified whether something is fake news or the label is just being used to tarnish the credibility of a specific piece of information? And what would stop governments, especially authoritarian regimes, from suppressing the freedom of expression under the guise of combatting fake news? The human civilization will have to find answers to these pressing questions, or else it will witness the repercussions itself.