The explosion of fake news and fake websites has taken the world by storm, affecting people’s views on almost everything, from political issues to social, cultural, and even scientific issues. There are now long lists of the “biggest fake news of 2016” and “fake websites”.
We educators, scientists, and communicators, particularly those of us who spend some time on social media trying to spread accurate knowledge and careful thinking, have faced a tsunami of ridiculous stories and theories that attract people and quickly become extremely difficult to defeat and erase. In the past few months, I have received countless queries about “the asteroid that Nasa says will strike Earth on [insert an upcoming date]” or that “the world will go dark on [insert an upcoming date]”, or that “a number of scientists have ‘confirmed’ that the Earth is flat”, etc. And it’s going to get worse, much worse!
But before we get to that, let us try to understand why this is happening now. Several reasons have combined to produce this explosive phenomenon: first, social media have connected billions of people in ways that make it so easy to share “information”; secondly, images, videos, anecdotes, and colourful stories are highly effective at impressing people and making them hit “share” or “retweet” without thinking; thirdly, people fall to confirmation bias so easily, that is they tend to believe and spread ideas that they agree with much more than ones that challenge them or invite them to reconsider their views.
The bad news is that some experts with particular political or social agendas have developed information “robots” called “social bots” that can spread stories through Facebook and Twitter by impersonating media organisations, science institutions, or even personalities with (fake) millions of followers.
Media specialists have produced videos that show famous people pronouncing, in their own voices, statements that they actually never uttered. Sophisticated software can now take statements written by the programmer and merge them with the voice and intonation characteristics of any person. If enough videos exist of me speaking in English, the specialist can ask the software to make me speak a sentence in exactly the way I would say it, with my accent and everything. Such software exists today but requires advanced computer capabilities; soon, however, they will be available for use by all of us.
Likewise, videos can be constructed to show people in events that never actually took place. Amnesty International now must analyse every photo or video it receives to check that the purported human rights violation is real. This entails comparing the background scenery, the meteorological conditions shown in the photo or video at the presumed place, and other related information to ensure that everything checks out.
So what to do? Science and education can help! If computer science may be used to generate fake images and videos, it could also be used to detect the fakery. First, digital pictures and videos must come with metadata (all the information about the device that took them, with the location, time, etc.), and we should all learn to systematically check the metadata. In fact, media organisations will be required not only to embed the metadata into whatever they release (say videos shot by their reporters), they will be asked to include references to the source (the media organisation, the reporter, etc.).
Detecting social bots
On a larger front, computer scientists are working on developing tools to detect the aforementioned “social bots” and block them on Twitter, Facebook, and other media. Shortly, it is hoped, we will be able to download tools that will automatically determine the real source of any “information” we might receive from friends or download from some websites.
Education too has an important role to play. We need to teach our students digital and media literacy as part of the critical thinking tool set and skills that allow them to navigate the digital world in safe and well informed ways. Students are now inundated with “information” from everywhere, arriving every second on their social media accounts, which have supplanted email boxes. They need to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff: check the source of that info; learn to identify fake websites; have a number of trusted reference sites for various types of information (from political news to scientific knowledge); google that info to see if it has been debunked by experts or at least discussed on trusted websites; and other such procedures.
Fake news is a consequence of the opening of the floodgates of digital information: everyone can now produce professional-quality videos and websites, many people have figured out how to make some “info” go viral (playing on our reactions), and — whether naively or maliciously — countless people are participating in the spreading of false information. We need to work hard at combating this trend, with the tools that science and education can provide us with.
Nidhal Guessoum (@NidhalGuessoum) is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.