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‘Echoes’ make fake news easy to believe

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A member of staff Page Hood (right) asks British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) a question regarding fake news websites during an election campagin visit to Fergusons Transport in the town of Washington, west of Sunderland, northeast England, on Monday. afp

‘Echoes’ make fake news easy to believe

Early last month, a strange video in which the leaders of opposing political parties in Britain endorsed each other for prime minister became a topic of conversation that circulated widely in the country.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I endorse my worthy opponent, the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister.”

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “I am urging all Labour members and supporters to . . . back Boris Johnson to continue as our prime minister.”

Britain will hold general elections on Thursday. The video was in fact a fake one created intentionally by a private institution in Britain, using AI and people with similar voices to the candidates.

The institution claimed that it created the video in order to sound an alarm about the impact of “deep fake” technology, which is used to create elaborate fake videos that are difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

In the US, with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, posts aimed at creating a bad reputation for candidates have already started to appear.

Racing across social media

Fake videos and fake news are spread through giant tech companies’ platforms, including social networking service Facebook. In the 2016 US presidential election, content suggesting that the pope supported Trump spread on Facebook. According to US media, 960,000 cases of such misinformation were spread during the election period.

The most read fake news on Facebook this year, according to a study reported on by US media, included content that can be considered preposterous, such as “[former Vice President] Joe Biden calls Trump supporters ‘dregs of society’” and claims that Trump’s father was “a member of the Ku Klux Klan”.

Germany experienced problems when a photo of Chancellor Angela Merkel with a Syrian refugee went viral under the title Chancellor and terrorist.

The man had taken a photo of himself with Merkel when she visited a refugee facility. When an act of terrorism took place in Brussels in March 2016, however, the photograph was circulated on social media together with false information such as “Merkel with a terrorist”.

Merkel has expressed willingness to accept refugees from countries such as Syria, and dissatisfaction with the acceptance of refugees may be behind this kind of post.

When compared to other countries, Japan is considered to have relatively few instances of fake news designed to stir up political divisions.

However, according to Mitsubishi Research Institute, there were cases where information and videos criticising specific candidates were posted on the internet during the 2018 Okinawa gubernatorial election.

Criticised for being the medium for fake information, big IT companies are slowly starting to address the problem.

In countries such as the US and Britain, Facebook has partnered with companies that verify the truthfulness of news. The social media platform is taking measures to make it easier for users who have found fake news to report it or to display a warning that an article is fake.

It is hard to consider Facebook’s efforts sufficient, however, and so the vicious circle continues.

Why do we believe and spread fake news? Because “social media is structured so that you only see what you want to see”, explains Nagoya University lecturer Kazutoshi Sasahara.

Locked in ‘echo chambers’

Social media companies such as Facebook easily create closed systems, or “echo chambers”, as most social connections on their platforms are among people who have common interests and ways of thinking.

Furthermore, IT giants collect data on frequently visited websites and word searches. These are analysed with AI to infer the political orientations of users with a high degree of accuracy. The result is that more and more of the information served to a user is in line with their preferences, and different opinions or news they won’t like does not easily reach them.

Governments have also launched initiatives to prevent the spread of fake news. In France, a law to counter fake news around the time of elections was approved in November last year. It permits legal injunctions to prevent the transmission of fake news by social media platforms.

In Japan, an expert panel of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry plans to compile a draft report before the end of the year that includes provisions requiring giant IT corporations to take voluntary measures against fake news.

There is debate about the involvement of governments, however. In Singapore, a law against fake news came into effect in October. On November 25, the first amendment order under the new law was issued, claiming that a Facebook post by an opposition politician contained falsehoods.

However, Singapore’s new law has met with both domestic and international criticism for also having the capacity to stifle public opinion that is critical of the government.

Lawyer Ryoji Mori has a cautious attitude on government regulation, saying: “We must consider the balance between freedom of expression and regulation. It is difficult to clearly distinguish what is fake news.”

How to ensure the quality of information? This can be considered to be a difficult problem confronting society.

The Japan News/Asia News Network

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