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Fake News a Potent Threat, But We Have No Strategy to Deal With it, Writes Lt Gen DS Hooda

There is very little discussion on the strategic dimension of the problem and the manner in which it is to be countered. The government’s first reaction is to pull up the social media service providers to ensure that their platforms are not being misused.

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda |

Updated:August 6, 2018, 11:34 AM IST
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Fake News a Potent Threat, But We Have No Strategy to Deal With it, Writes Lt Gen DS Hooda
There is very little discussion on the strategic dimension of the problem and the manner in which it is to be countered. The government’s first reaction is to pull up the social media service providers to ensure that their platforms are not being misused.
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Last month, five innocent men, suspected of being child lifters, were killed by enraged villagers in Maharashtra’s Dhule district. Apparently, rumours of a gang of child kidnappers had been circulating on WhatsApp. The incident was tragically familiar to a series of incidents that have swept the country from Assam to Tamil Nadu. However, the story became dated after one week as new events captured the media imagination.

The killings are only the visible manifestation of the dark side of the social media – its powerful ability to sway public opinion and sharpen divisions in the population. This could cause long-term damage to a society and undermine trust in public institutions and democratic processes. We see an example of this in the vitiated debate over the investigations of the American elections of 2016.

The threats are real, and they are not all internal. Hostile and inimical external powers will seek to sow discord between people, spread misinformation and weaken faith in the government. This is a form of warfare that requires no use of force and due to its nature, can continue to be pursued even during peace.

To some of us, who have been studying information warfare, the real worry is that we seem to have no strategy to deal with it. There is very little discussion on the strategic dimension of the problem and the manner in which it is to be countered. The government’s first reaction is to pull up the social media service providers to ensure that their platforms are not being misused. A stern warning is given to WhatsApp, and Mark Zuckerberg is threatened that he will be summoned to India. These are good media bytes but a more holistic approach is required to be formulated involving the triad – the technology platforms, the government and the people.

For too long, technology companies have looked only towards monetising our personal data while paying scant attention to the content that was appearing on their platforms. Yet, after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica used the personal data of millions of Facebook users to influence their behaviour in the US elections, Facebook issued a public apology accepting responsibility for protecting personal information and to better monitor content.

In order to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook and WhatsApp have come out with fact-checking mechanisms using both humans and machine learning. However, with the vast quantum of information flowing over social media networks, human intervention has its limits. The attraction therefore is to trust Artificial Intelligence. However, this is also not the perfect solution. If people can be confused about fake news, asking machines to make such judgements is going to be extremely difficult.

In September 2016, the iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of a naked, 9-year-old girl fleeing from napalm bombs during the Vietnam War, was removed by Facebook after it was banned by Facebook’s algorithms due to child nudity. Recognising their limitations in monitoring content on their platforms, social media platforms are increasingly turning to users to exercise their judgement.

In January this year, Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page. “We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.” In its full-page advertisement released this week in India, WhatsApp listed easy tips to fight false information. Again, the onus is on people to check facts and respond appropriately. While some people have criticised this approach as diluting the social media’s own responsibility, it is not entirely inappropriate.

We, the people, have a huge responsibility. We are the trigger that makes hate messages viral. As long as the tweet conforms to our views and beliefs, it must be forwarded, irrespective of its contents. The anonymity of the platform encourages us to use the basest of language. It is therefore important that the people be educated on the darker side of the social media.

And finally, the responsibility of the lawmakers and political parties. The seduction of the social media is perhaps the strongest for them. All of them decry the tactics of Cambridge Analytica but admit to using our personal data for their analytics. It is a moot question whether the strategies they adopt during elections will be any different from those adopted by Cambridge Analytica.

It is unfortunate that India does not yet a personal data protection law or laws dealing with transparency of political advertisements on social media. It is often said that laws and regulation will kill innovation and growth on the internet. However, as dangers unfold, even Zuckerberg has admitted in a testimony before the US Congress in April this year that regulation of social media companies is “inevitable”. It is now for the government to step up.

It’s a new world. A world where what is perceived to be true is more important than the truth. There is an assault on our way of life, and to fight it, the people of the country and the government have to come together. The size of the Indian market will force the technology companies to follow. Any doubts about this should be dispelled after recent reports that Google has been developing a censored search engine for a reentry into China.

(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)

(Get detailed and live results of each and every seat of the state Assemblies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram to know which candidate/party is leading or trailing and to know who has won and who has lost and by what margin. Our one-of-its-kind Election Analytics Centre lets you put on the psephologist's hat. Know interesting facts and trivia about the elections. Elections = News18)
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