Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies…

Vanessa Baird writes on the strange mutations of ‘fake news’

There's nothing new about fake or junk news or 'alternative facts'.

But today’s scale, speed and viral penetration of falsehood via social media is unprecedented. So is its profitability, as Macedonian teenagers from the rustbelt town of Veles discovered when they set up fake news sites pushing out stories they had made up about Donald Trump (like the Pope was backing him) during the US election.

Lies feed and are fed by populist politics – and the need to belong. As both religion and authoritarianism show, telling – and believing – things that are not grounded in reality can be an effective way of demanding and showing loyalty. Suspension of disbelief comes easily in an environment that routinely prioritizes the entertainment value of news over veracity or relevance. But even for those among us who think we are above such things, filter bubbles intrinsic to the way the internet and its algorithms currently operate, reinforce our interests, prejudices and notions of truth with little challenge.

Separating truth from falsehood can be really difficult. And it’s about to get worse. Since early 2018 Reddit has become a spawning ground for ‘deepfakes’ – for example, videos where the actor’s original face is swapped for someone else’s, using a machine-learning algorithm. By February a desktop tool for creating deepfakes called Fake App had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. Audio too is vulnerable. Research by DeepMind, the London-based artificial intelligence division of Google, has recently led to a massive step forward in making artificial voices. ‘Fake news is about to get nuts’ is how US tech writer Parmy Olson puts it.

To date the solutions on offer are not reassuring. Facebook’s suggestion that users themselves rate the trustworthiness of sites is risibly open to manipulation. Efforts by governments around the world – France, Brazil, Britain, Malaysia, India – to crack down on fake news are naïve, short-sighted and threaten free speech, according to experts. Fake news is ‘a really big problem, but no-one has a good answer yet,’ says Paul Bernal, lecturer in information technology and media law at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Meanwhile, the use by those in power of the term ‘fake news’ as a smear against journalists who criticize them, and an excuse to try to put them out of action, shows a sinister mutation of the fake news gene. It has been pressed into service not only by the likes of Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un and Duterte but also Myanmar’s genocide-denying Aung San Suu Kyi.

Before we rush to blame the internet and social media for everything, spare a thought for that bit of misinformation that has left a huge and lasting trail of destruction in terms of wars fought, lives lost and violent terrorism engendered. That item that told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It came from the mouths of our elected representatives – and had nothing to do with social media. Just old fashioned spin, manipulation or even bare-faced lying, brought to us by Messrs Bush and Blair.

Images: Anne-Maie Miller / Tinderstock