Technology is a double-edged sword – its innovations have helped save many, as in the case of the daring rescue of the 12 boys from the Thai football team. However, with social media platforms being used to propagate fake news, controversy theories and hate messages, technology has also created misinformation, hatred and violence, affecting numerous lives.
Fake news spreads like wildfire. The recent spate of horrific mob lynchings over rumours of child lifters reported around the country, which has killed around 24 people and left many others injured, is a reminder of the chilling consequences that fake news can have.
Governments around the world are warning big tech organisations such as Google, Twitter and Microsoft, to clean up their platforms and ensure that they are not used to propagate fake news. We take a look at what these tech organisations are doing to counter fake news and some startups that have pitched into the fight.
Microsoft: The tech giant has been working on building Artificial Intelligence driven systems across all its operations to tackle the spread of fake news. For its search engine Bing, Microsoft has introduced a ‘perspectives’ feature where, for more nuanced and contentious questions, the search engine will throw up opposing perspectives or both sides of the debate, from reputable sources. The company is also looking to forge tie-ups with trusted news sources and indicate to users what the source of a particular piece of news is. For its news website, Microsoft News or msn.com, Microsoft has also tied up with more than 1.000 publishers including the New York Times, USA Today, BBC, etc, and 3,000 brands in 140 countries to obtain quality and more diverse news. MSN also works with 800 editors across 50 locations who determine which news goes live.
Facebook: Facebook has been at the centre of the raging debate against fake news, especially after it was found that Russia had tried to influence US voters during the US presidential elections, via its social media platform. However, the tech giant has stopped short of removing fake news completely. Facebook has stated that what others call fake news may just be perceptions, and hence banning such pages would be against freedom of speech. Instead, it says that Facebook will demote individual posts that are reported by FB users or rated false by FB fact checkers.
In 2016, Facebook had partnered with third-party fact-checkers whose sole duty it is to check and stop fake news from being disseminated. Fake news that has been flagged by the fact checkers will be placed much lower in the News Feed, while pages that repeatedly feature fake news will see their distribution reduced and ability to monetise and advertise removed. Facebook is planning to expand the fact checking to include videos and photographs as well.
In India, Facebook launched its fact-checking pilot program in April, this year, when it tied up with the Mumbai-based fact-checking organisation called Boom, ahead of the Karnataka elections.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, came under fire from the Indian government for the rampant use of the messaging platform for spreading rumours. In response, Whatsapp has announced that it will offer up to USD 50,000 for proposals that will look into tackling fake news, amongst other measures.
On July 10, the messaging platform had also carried out a full-page ad in leading English and regional language dailies, giving 10 tips on how to identify whether a piece of information Is true or fake. These include understanding when a message is forwarded, checking photos in messages carefully to see if it is edited and using other sources to check if a particular story is being reported on multiple places, among others.
Whatsapp has also rolled out its ‘Forwarded’ label which will let users know if a particular message has been forwarded or is original, apart from giving more control to Group Admins, who will have a greater say over who can send messages or change group photos and descriptions. It is also testing a ‘Suspicious Link Detection’ feature which will alert users of spam and fake messages, by putting a red label on a suspicious link.
Twitter: A media scientist and his colleagues at MIT studied how far and fast fake news spread. An analysis of more than 4.5 million tweets and retweets which were posted on Twitter from 2006 to 2017, showed that fake news spread must faster and further on Twitter than true stories. This is the magnitude of the problem that the microblogging platform faces in terms of fake news, and is also the reason why it has often been accused of not doing enough to combat it.
A solution that Twitter has found is to suspend around 1 million accounts a day, totalling to around 70 million accounts in May and June. Twitter is also blocking the creation of 50,00 suspected spam accounts, daily. How much this would actually help in curbing fake news is still the subject of much discussion, as users can keep creating and adding accounts.
Google: Google and Youtube have been accused of allowing fake news and numerous conspiracy theories to flourish on its search engine and video sharing website, such as the Moon landing conspiracy, the Sandy Hook school shootings and Parkland shooting, and for pushing controversial and problematic content to gain more viewership. In response to the allegations and in a bid to clean up, Google has stated that it is expanding the Google News Initiative it had launched in March 2018 to cover Youtube, and has earmarked USD 25 million to create a working group of media organisations and media experts to help Youtube develop new product features.
Through the Google News Initiative, Google will work with media partners, journalists and news organisations to bring accurate news to users. Earlier this year, Google had also revamped its snippets feature by updating its search quality rater guidelines to enable people to flag hoaxes, fake news, false information and conspiracy theories, more accurately. Google also brought in former journalist, technologist and entrepreneur, Danny Sullivan, as the company’s Public Search Liason Officer. Sullivan’s job profile involves helping people understand search better and receiving public feedback to help Google be more transparent.
Apart from the tech giants, a number of startups are also combating the problem. These include:
Digital Shadows: The UK based cyber-security startup protects its clients against threats from the dark web, a part of the internet that needs special software to access and is often the breeding ground for fake news and various nefarious activities. It monitors, manages and remediates digital risks such as identity theft, fake websites and fake news to protect an organisation’s brand image.
FactMata: Co-founded by NLP researchers Dhruv Ghulati, Andreas Vlachos and Sebastian Reidel, FactMata is a crowdsourced community platform which leverages artificial intelligence to reduce online misinformation. The startup is currently developing two sets of tools – one for journalists, news readers and the general public to understand news and perspectives and to detect, verify and fact-check media information. The second tool is to enable businesses and advertisers to avoid placing ads on fake news and extremist content and to spot fake and misleading information.
NewsGuard: Steven Brill and Gordon Crovitz, journalists and media entrepreneurs, have launched NewsGuard which will hire trained journalists to analyse online news sources to help readers and viewers determine which sources are legitimate and which aren’t. These news sites will also have reliability ratings and nutrition labels which will help readers determine the veracity of each news website. After its US launch, which will be in time for the mid-term elections to be held in November, the startup is looking to go global.
SM Hoax Slayer: Founded by Pankaj Jain, SM Hoax Slayer started as a Facebook page in 2015. Today, the anti-fake news crusader fights against hoaxes and misinformation of all kinds – political, religious or social. Through his website, Jain has busted numerous instances of fake news, including a viral WhatsApp forward which showed the Indian flag flying on top of the Israeli parliament. This was, in fact, a product of photoshop and someone’s imagination.