The Cambridge Analytica scandal has put the issue of fake news into spotlight again. It has also renewed conversations as to how best prevent fake news peddlers from manipulating democracies. The excellent reporting by The Observer of London and The New York Times revealed how the supposedly “IT service management company” managed to pull off crucial electoral successes one after another for its clients scattered around the world.
Cambridge Analytica developed tactics to discover what issues concern voters the most. After having found the vulnerability, it then disseminated fake news to targeted voters, exacerbating their fear and turning the tide of elections in favour of its clients. The firm honed its method to near precision by analysing millions of Facebook users' data that was harvested without having taken their consent.
The disclosure by a whistle-blower has rattled lawmakers from both sides of the Atlantic. It also ignited public debate in India, albeit briefly, where both the ruling and the main opposition parties reportedly had taken the service of the company. Despite the fact that a major Bangladeshi political party reportedly sought Cambridge Analytica's service for the upcoming election, it did not ring any alarm bells in Bangladesh.
That was understandable. These days one does not have to manipulate voters through Facebook in order to win elections; we are accustomed to more overt ways of tampering with elections, but that does not mean that the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the whole issue of fake news should not worry us. In contrast, the dangerous effect of fake news in our society is worse than we realise.
From Ramu to Nasirnagar, Pabna's Bonogram to Rangpur's Thakurpara, fake news and rumours on social media resulted in some of the worst communal attacks in our recent memory. Last month UN investigators blamed Facebook for spreading hatred towards the Rohingyas in Myanmar, which culminated in a massive refugee exodus into Bangladesh. Yet, the issue remains largely underreported by the media, except for when something big happens.
Far from combating fake news, the media and civil society have failed to trigger any public debate about this issue. We failed in part because we thought Facebook was out of our reach. The media might have also been concerned about the government's possible interference. It was, after all, these concerns about fake news and rumours that the government capitalised on when it enacted draconian laws such as Section 57 of the ICT Act and Digital Security Act. Another reason behind the media's scant response to this dangerous epidemic was that a certain section of media is itself just as culpable as the so-called news portals for fuelling unsubstantiated and even outright fake news for web traffic and revenue.
In many other countries, the media continue to play a more vocal and proactive role in tackling this issue. In the United States, every major news outlet has a special group of fact-checkers whose sole purpose is to debunk fake news and false claims by politicians and public figures. In addition, there are a number of highly respected fact-checking websites that continue to monitor what's being fed to the public. In Singapore, The Straits Times introduced a feature, askST, for readers to ask its professional journalists to check whether a particular news report is true. In India, The Wire, an independent and respected news website, frequently calls out mainstream newspapers and TV channels for peddling fake news.
In Bangladesh, due to the media's hesitation to weigh in fact-checking businesses, two websites, Jaachai and BD Fact Check, took it upon themselves to fill the vacuum. Their works are helping debunk hoax, false or misleading claims surfing on the Internet, but their crusade is largely limited to clearing confusions.
Both Qadaruddin Shishir, who edits BD Fact Check, and the Editor of Jaachai, who insists on remaining anonymous, emphasised on the need for the media to take the lead in the fight against fake news. These fact-checkers, unlike the mainstream media, cannot afford to cross the line by fact-checking certain individuals deemed too powerful. In fact, Jaachai operates anonymously for the obvious reason of personal safety. On the other hand, established media outlets have more resources and thus can afford to hire more experts to research and dig up the truth.
Not just out of business concerns, they say, the media should play a vital role in tackling the spread of fake news because it threatens the very function of the press. “With the massive spread of fake news, truth loses its credibility. People start to ignore real issues that matter most,” says the Jaachai editor.
Since the election of Donald Trump, in which fake news factories played a crucial role, Facebook has eliminated some of its obvious problems. For example, when someone reacts to or “likes” a shared link, the preview of “related links” containing hoax and fake stories no longer appear on their dashboards. The social media giant, as well as Google, have stopped showing advertisements on fake news sites and videos.
However, Facebook is faced with the conundrum of trying to tackle the spread of misinformation without restricting someone's ability to post links to fake news sites. This explains why Facebook brought a blanket change in its algorithm to prioritise posts from friends and family over public posts in one's newsfeed, despite the risk of losing a huge chunk of its revenue.
Facebook has made it clear that it does not want a direct editorial role in determining what constitutes “fake”. Instead, it has announced its intention to collaborate with professional journalists who are to flag false stories. In addition, it now allows general users to report “false news”. Not just news links, Facebook began “fact-checking” photos and videos from last week to contain the spread of hoaxes and false news. In France, the social media network collaborated with AFP, a Paris-based international news agency.
While neither Facebook nor AFP has disclosed what criteria would be used to determine the authenticity of photos and videos, it's a great leap forward in tackling the spread of fake news. Understandably, Facebook will soon expand this initiative to other countries and partners, and we can expect that the world's eighth most populous nation would not be kept in waiting for too long. Now, we can only hope that when Facebook looks for partners, our media isn't caught unprepared.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.