As war ravages our world, spanning continents from the Israel-Palestine conflict to the protracted war between Russia and Ukraine, we are inundated with images. These images are graphic, explicit, and precisely tailored to tug at our emotions.
However, many of them are also likely to be deep fakes, AI-generated, or simply Photoshopped fabrications, as cyber warfare and propaganda have become integral weapons in the arsenals of the warring factions.
The naive hope that social media across the world would foster better human understanding has been completely shattered. Platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and Meta (formerly Facebook), along with communication apps like WhatsApp, have been weaponised by malicious actors who knowingly disseminate incendiary content in bad faith.
Our eyes grow weary, our hearts race as we scroll through the various apps on our smartphones. Propaganda from every party involved ensures that we emerge from our phones anything but enlightened. In the past, the absence of a digital realm meant that we consumed carefully crafted, truthful reports from war correspondents commissioned by mainstream newspapers to cover conflicts.
Sinking deeper into the abyss
Then came television, which brought 24/7 war coverage into our living rooms, with some irresponsible media outlets sensationalising tragedy for the sake of ratings.
As an investigative journalist, I delved deep into the realms of misinformation and incitement in my investigative book, “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army.” I was horrified to discover that fake news had assumed dominion. Shortly thereafter, the world was shaken by the realisation that even elections in democracies could be manipulated through social media platforms.
As more and more people worldwide rely on social media for their news, the avalanche of propaganda across digital platforms continues to grow. It has evolved into an echo chamber where news is meticulously tailored to the participants’ biases.
Traditional boundaries between reporting and commentary, once held by classic newspapers, have dissolved. Journalists are now expected to provide hot takes on every issue, and commentary has increasingly supplanted genuine news.
Comment is cheap, while actual news gathering that puts reporters on the ground is costly. Numerous media outlets, especially in India’s so-called “news channels,” have replaced news reporting with combative talking head debates, sinking deeper into the abyss on every issue. The real casualty in this shift is the viewer, as nightly shouting matches have supplanted real news.
In a world where every person with a smartphone becomes a citizen journalist, the line between professional journalists and the general public blurs.
Comment is free, but facts are sacred
As C.P. Scott, the editor of The Guardian for 50 years, aptly noted, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” However, today, commentary increasingly serves as propaganda, and purported facts often amount to fake news.
In India, WhatsApp has become a powerful weapon wielded by political parties to disseminate vast quantities of fake news in large groups. With no editorial filters, unsuspecting users are bombarded with fake images designed to incite communal tensions.
As part of my professional work, I monitor social media, and I am appalled to witness the significant surge in fake news shared following the outbreak of the Israel-Palestine war. The disinformation about Palestine is propagated by accounts, some of them based in India, ensuring the spread of propaganda.
As India heads into the election season, with general elections scheduled for next year, I can only predict, with a sense of foreboding, that we will face an onslaught of fake news and incitement. Deepfakes and AI-generated images could even deceive fact-checkers, the one branch of journalism that has experienced growth in recent years.
However, dear reader, as you read this in Gulf News, a trustworthy news source, you have taken the first step in safeguarding yourself.
Inciting unrest and violence
Permit me to offer some advice for your well-being. Do not believe everything you encounter on WhatsApp. Malicious actors have even recreated graphics from newspapers and channels to deceive people into accepting propaganda as truth.
Do not forward content unless you are certain it is not fake news, a piece of information reported and verified by a reputable news source.
Beware of fake news sites and propaganda outlets, often financed by political parties, masquerading as legitimate news sources. Remember, legitimate news sites do not publish gruesome images of decapitated babies designed to incite unrest and violence.
If you suspect you have come across fake content, tag fact-checkers and responsible accounts on the platform, including government handles, and request verification. By doing so, you play your part as an informed and responsible citizen.
All of us, including journalists, have been vulnerable to falling for fake news. However, as disinformation is weaponised in times of war, it is imperative that we all do our part to remain vigilant and aware in our consumption of news.
Support the dissemination of genuine news by consuming legacy media; their legacy is one of integrity, free from propaganda and fake news.