Most of us don’t give much thought to what we post on social media, and a lot of what we see on social media is pretty innocuous. However, it only seems that way at first glance. The truth is that what we post online has a frightening potential. According to recent research from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Washington, the things we post on social media could be utilized by software to predict future events.
In a paper that’s just been published on Arxiv, the team of researchers found that social media can be used to “detect and predict offline events”. Twitter analysis can accurately predict civil unrest, for instance, because people use certain hashtags to discuss issues online before their anger bubbles over into the real world.
The most famous example of this came during the Arab Spring, when clear signs of the impending protests and unrest were found on social networks days before people took to the streets.
Similarly, in India a massive fake news industry has sprung up exercising influence over traditional discourse of politics and has a potential in becoming a security challenge like the Arab Spring if not kept in check. As the debate over mob lynching in India is raging it should be understood that such incidents would not have had such a rapid and massive effect if the youth had not had access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media that allowed the fake news industry to organise and share made-up videos and information. The mob lynching since the past years are a direct result of the fake news industry spilling over from social media to the real world.
Fake News was used very effectively during US Presidential elections. It was part of the official campaign itself run in collaboration with tech companies and it is also being alleged that even the Russians also ran their own network. The same method was used to shape the Brexit debate as well. As we write this the fake news industry is spreading its tentacles in India as well. Many of India’s leading sportsmen, celebrities, economists, politicians have already fallen victim to this by disseminating such fake content. This is a dangerous trend and should be kept in check by our intelligence agencies to avert future disaster.
The way it works in short is like this. Numerous websites and portals of varying degree of legitimacy and funding are floated. Specific news contents are generated for different groups based on their region, ideology, age, religion etc. which is mixed with a heavy dose of soft porn to slowly blend in with their objective. These fake contents are than peddled in social media and specific groups targeted via analytics tools developed by tech companies. As a lot of such fake content is generated slowly it starts getting a momentum of itself and somewhere down the line it is picked up by any unsuspected person of influence – celebrities, politicians and even journalists themselves. What happens after this point is sheer madness.
Whether by choice or by ignorance even the mainstream media starts peddling this nonsense, dedicating their entire primetime news shows in analyzing the fake news, who said what and why and blah blah… instead of identifying where the fake content was generated in the first place and getting it shut. Due to the nature and sensationalism of the generated content and also because its echoed by persons of influence with time this fake worldview has the potential to spill over in the real world with physical casualties, as we have seen in so many lynching cases. If not kept in check it could capture and take over the entire national discourse. We will reach a point where it will be very difficult to keep track of what is fact or fiction and the entire society would be radicalized into different opposing camps all based on lies.
A system called EMBERS (Early Model Based Event Recognition using Surrogates) has yielded “impressive results” not just in “detecting events, but in detecting specific properties of those events”. It has been used to predict unrest in South America, forecasting events with 80 per cent accuracy in Brazil and a slightly underwhelming 50 per cent in Venezuela. Another study showed “impressive” results in detecting “civil unrest” linked to the Black Lives Matter group, which formed in America in response to police shootings.
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Would the Indian Govt use such technology to track the fake news peddlers on social media to put an end to these mob lynchings? Of course in order to do so first the Govt should have to acknowledge the existence of this fake news industry in order to take action against it.
All 17 American Intelligence agencies have raised this concern about the impact of this fake news industry on their society. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center a majority of Americans (a whopping 88%) believe that completely made-up news has left Americans confused about even the basic facts. And we in India are heading towards a worst scenario than this. Why? Because unlike India the US Government and Intelligence community has publicly addressed this issue and are working towards resolving this menace. Committees after committees are being setup, senate hearings are being convened to reach to the bottom of this and new Units are being created to effectively counter this threat to their society. As we have explained earlier the 21st century is the century of #DigitalWars and we urge the Govt, politicians, elected officials, celebrities and all members of the Indian public to take note of this and do your part in keeping the society healthy.
*This article was published by The New Delhi Times