Covid-19 sees fake news flourish – but don’t just take our word for it

It’s getting harder to tell real from fake, which is exactly how the scammers like it

Facebook and Twitter have been weaponised by those who want to spread a particular agenda, regardless of whether it is the truth or not. Photograph: iStock

Facebook and Twitter have been weaponised by those who want to spread a particular agenda, regardless of whether it is the truth or not. Photograph: iStock

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The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on many things, but the importance of technology and its influence to our lives is certainly something that has become apparent.

During lockdown we saw Zoom yoga classes, Houseparty hangouts and Teams school sessions. Video calls kept us in touch with each other, and broadband allowed us to stay safer by working from home.

Ecommerce flourished as physical shops shut their doors, and online shopping slots for everything from Boots to the local supermarket suddenly became a prize to be won.

But it’s not all positive. An increase in fake news online has seen people put their health at risk by following bad advice on so-called cures for coronavirus.

People regularly share posts on the “dangers” of mask wearing, citing online sources to bolster their argument.

The rush to get the first take, to be the first with the story, can lead to cutting corners, even among news outlets that hold themselves to higher standards

The internet may have opened us up to new ways of thinking, but it has also made it easier for scam artists peddling snake oil to find new audiences willing to listen and spread the word on their behalf.

It can be difficult to weed out the real from the fake, even from sources that seem trustworthy.

A survey carried out for Pure Telecom found 67 per cent of people in Ireland have noticed an increase in fake news being circulated online since the pandemic broke. It comes as online activity surges, and more than half of adults are increasingly turning to online publications for their news.

Surged

For those classed as Baby Boomers, that figure is even higher, at 67 per cent. Podcasts and social media have also surged in popularity, with 53 per cent of people saying they have been more active on social media.

The latter may be the most problematic of all. Facebook and Twitter have been weaponised by those who want to spread a particular agenda, regardless of whether it is the truth or not.

Facebook demonstrated that as recently as this week when the social network dumped several accounts and pages that had been set up by Russia’s Internet Research Agency in a bid to influence the upcoming US presidential election.

As technology advances, weeding out the real from the fake is only going to become even more difficult

Some 13 accounts and two pages were removed after a tip-off from the FBI; the operation also included a fake left-wing online publication that duped a number of “unwitting freelancers” into writing stories.

“They reached out to and relied on real people who are native speakers in the languages they wanted covered, likely to try to limit their linguistic footprint and make it harder to see that this is in fact an influence operation,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

According to Facebook, the network got “nearly no engagement” on the social media site before Facebook removed it – this time. But this wasn’t the first time that the Internet Research Agency has tried to influence the public discourse.

It was the main group behind an effort to influence the 2016 US election on Facebook, when it reached tens of millions of users. That particular effort went under the radar until 2017, and since then Facebook has removed 12 networks with ties to the group.

It’s getting more and more difficult to tell real news from fake these days. That is due in no small part to the ridiculous political discourse we are increasingly subjected to, making it even harder to say with certainty that a quote or an incident is a fake.

First take

The rush to get the first take, to be the first with the story, can lead to cutting corners, even among news outlets that hold themselves to higher standards.

As technology advances, weeding out the real from the fake is only going to become even more difficult. While some deep fakes – photos, videos or audio files manipulated by artificial intelligence and that are hard to detect – have been created to entertain, there is the very real fear that others could cause international conflict.

Inasmuch as big tech has helped cause the problem, big tech should also try to solve it. Microsoft has stepped up to the fight with a tool called Microsoft Video Authenticator.

According to Microsoft, it can look at a still photo or video and analyse it to provide a percentage score that it has been altered in some way, detecting the blending of boundaries or subtle fading that may not be discernible to the human eye. For video, it will display the percentage in real time, frame by frame, making it easier to see if a single frame has been manipulated.

Microsoft is also implementing technology that will allow content creators to certify content, built into Microsoft Azure; it will team up with a reader that checks the certificates to determine if the content is genuine.

While that tool will come in handy, it won’t solve the problem in the long term. As the weapons to fight deep fakes and fake news advance, so too do the creators of such content. Perhaps it is time to take things back to basics, and become a little more sceptical of every news source - those considered mainstream and otherwise.

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