Technology has greatly improved human lives around the world, pushed the world towards development and economic progress, and advanced human civilization. We live in the age of information where knowledge and information are available at our fingertips. All we need to do to learn about something is either use a search engine like google or watch an educational/informative video on the internet about it. Knowledge has never been so accessible as it is today in human history, and it is precisely this reason why it is hard to understand why there is so much disinformation and misinformation on the internet and why so many people fall for it.
It can be called the information paradox of our lives as even though the correct information is just a click away, people are more inclined to be influenced by and believe in falsehoods. The age of social media has given everyone a voice, but it may have also ushered in the era of post-truth.
The advent of social media was touted as a step forward in human history and human connectivity as billions of people around the world now shared a digital platform and connected regardless of where they live, what language they speak, or their culture. Social media brought down the walls of personal space and people were now able to talk, engage and discuss on web platforms. Digital technology made social media much more attractive and easier for people to use and share their opinions and beliefs.
The next big step in the digital technology for social media was the introduction of algorithm-based A.I.s. These algorithms were designed to comb through user data and analyze user behaviour and predict and provide the type of social media content a user would like thus increasing user engagement. All of this, just to increase the time you spend on a social media network, allowing advertisers to place ads in your feed for things the algorithm thinks you might like or want.
This race to increase user engagement meant that more and more people who share the same beliefs, ideologies, and ideas are connected, creating an echo chamber wherein their beliefs and ideas are given legitimacy not through facts and figures but through how many people resonate with that idea. Your political interests became the basis of your social media content, and you are surrounded by people who share the same ideas as you, creating a closed cycle wherein facts and figures do not hold as much sway as your and your friends’ beliefs. People have their own versions of the truth or post-truth, and rampant false news has led to a situation that can be best described as a war for truth.
Your social media profiles are full of content that spreads misinformation, with people that do not believe in facts and figures if they do not align with their own perception of the world. All of this is because social media platforms want us to be online for longer periods of time.
Push Back Against Disinformation
The presence of disinformation, misinformation, and post-truth can be fatal for society and the algorithm. This goes beyond a bunch of people believing that time travel exists and that aliens have been abducting people because these misinformation/disinformation campaigns have now started affecting real-world society and governments.
Before we move further, we must understand the difference between disinformation, misinformation, and post-truth. Misinformation is when there is a lack of clarity about the situation and facts, misinformation is false, inaccurate information that can mislead often communicated without the intention to deceive others. Disinformation on the other hand is a deliberate attempt at spreading false information about a situation to deceive the population and influence public opinion so that the people start doubting the truth. Post-truth is a political philosophy wherein objective facts do not matter. Public opinion is changed by appealing to the beliefs and emotions of the public rather than discussing factual truth. Arguments are made based on popular beliefs and emotions of the people and facts and truth are treated as irrelevant.
All of these can be frustrating for a government to handle since it affects the perception of the public at large about the actual situation and affects their decision making and following the rules and laws of the land. The current pandemic has given us a first-hand example of disinformation and post-truth work.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the president of the US, Donald Trump, and his followers in the media touted the virus to be as deadly as the flu and that the people had nothing to fear. Calls for social distancing, lockdown, mandatory masks faced intense resistance throughout the country as it was seen as a conspiracy to cull civil liberties. Even after the president acknowledged the deadliness of the virus, some people remain convinced that the virus was being hyped and it was just a conspiracy. Even after a year, when vaccination drives are in full swing, people are refusing to get vaccinated, accusing the government of using mind control drugs in the vaccination to control the people.
Such disinformation campaigns create a great risk for the country as even if as low as 20-30% of the population refuses to get vaccinated or practice suggested norms, it makes the entire country susceptible to another epidemic or a mutated version of the virus.
Using Technology to Combat Disinformation
The biggest web platforms for disinformation campaigns are social media platforms that enable and allow people to post and share their beliefs and ideas. Often the accounts spreading disinformation are “bot” accounts or fake accounts created for the sole purpose of spreading false information under an alias.
Digital technology has already produced innovations to combat hate speech, disinformation, and fake news stories. Last year Microsoft announced the Microsoft Video Authenticator, an AI-based program that was designed to detect deep fake videos and photos by analyzing the media in question. Another breakthrough has been the Reconnaissance of Influence Operations program from the staff members at MIT. This program has been able to detect disinformation campaigns with an accuracy of 96% regardless of whether the accounts being used were bot accounts or real accounts. AI is being used extensively to combat disinformation campaigns which themselves are using AIs to disseminate false information. Developers around the world, along with social media giants are developing social tools to distinguish between human and bot accounts.
Social media platforms have themselves started using these tools to identify and mark posts that are spreading disinformation by pointing them out and providing the real facts. In other cases, accounts that regularly propagate false information are banned from the platform.
The age of social media and information has brought about the dawn of disinformation and post-truth but the greatest tool to combat these is digital technology itself. Usage of AI can help social media platforms to find and restrict such disinformation campaigns ensuring that people are not exposed to false information, and propaganda campaigns and are instead carrying out their own due diligence.