Fake News and the Case of the Internet Police Gone Rogue
Illustration: Akshita Monga
“Ibelieved it was the right thing to do,” said Tony Blair about the Iraq War, because self-righteous belief is more important than fact and reality. He had kept repeating to the British public that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
As it turned out, there weren’t.
The fake news was further spread out by large sections of mainstream media, as they cheered for military action. Thousands of British troops lost their lives, and many others wounded on account of the “intervention”. Iraq’s education system – considered one of the best in the region at the time – was in tatters. Sanctions and blockades were introduced and instability was created in the entire region from which they struggle to recover even now.
WMDs, however, were never actually labelled “fake news”.
For decades, it was institutions in the form of governments and traditional media that had the monopoly over the circulation of news, information, rumour, gossip, and even fake news. There is a long history of Iraq-like interventions, where elections are swung and panic is spread around, with help from what were outright lies. Make no mistake, presenting lies and falsehoods as credible truth isn’t a new phenomenon. It has existed for over 350 years.
But suddenly there’s huge fuss about it. And it’s a big problem, because anyone with an internet connection and Photoshop can manufacture news. The internet democratised the flow of information, but every silver lining has a cloud. The internet also democratised and paved the path for the cancerous propulsion of fake news. Even as the watchdogs of the internet act as fact-checkers and lie-busters, there are thousands of individuals and websites involved in creating and distributing fake WhatsApp forwards and false news articles.
That fake news is a nuisance is to say the sky is blue and grass is green. It has become a slur to shut down debate, with Donald Trump going around town, branding anything he disagrees with as “fake news”. It has also become a convenient excuse, for a lot of his critics, to justify certain events they cannot explain or debate with rational argument. “Oh, the electorate was influenced by fake news,” they parrot, without understanding the definition of that argument. It’s like the liberal American version of “soldiers are fighting at the border!”
But if there is one thing that is clear, it is that the elite institutions of government and traditional media outlets appear to have lost their monopoly over the masses in the domain of distributing information.
Today, it is the Facebooks and Googles of the world – along with governments across the world – who crave that monopoly over the flow of information. GAFA is striving to become the class monitors of the internet. Whether it is through the power of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, or in the garb of letting users decide, they want to act as filters to decide what is true and what is fake. They want to be the gatekeepers of information on cyberspace. Post the Cambridge Analytica scandal, users started downloading their Facebook data and were shocked to find out that Facebook had been collecting call records and SMS data from Android devices for years.
That proposed solution to fake news is an even bigger problem than that of fake news. It’s like ordering a lobotomy to treat a cold. It suggests that we can trust a few institutions with knowing what’s best for everyone. And as we all know, “knowledge is porridge.”
The reason we avoid concentration of power in any administrative structure – ideal world scenario, i.e., no relation to IRL – is because when power is restricted to one, two, or even a few entities, the moment they become corrupt, the entire system collapses. There is already enough evidence out there to suggest that the likes of Facebook or Google have no moral right or objective expertise to carry out the function of being the internet police.
We have seen quite recently in the Cambridge Analytica exposé, how criminally negligent Facebook has been with sensitive data. They may now potentially face a federal investigation. Google was fined €2.42 billion by the EU for manipulating search engine results to favour its own shopping service. Do we honestly believe these companies are capable of making moral judgments, capable of deciding what is true and what is false for us?
The simple answer is, we don’t know. We are in a fairly nascent stage of dealing with these arresting questions that have wider consequences on society – we’re only at the start of our online lives.
It will require a whole lot more study and research; it will require a whole lot more debate in the public arena. But we must tread carefully, because it is always easier to make a problem worse than it is. And my fear is, that we’re on that path already.
Always be worried when people tell you to give them all the power, so they can do good for the world. Blair did it in ’99. If history is any indication, it never ends well.