“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” Voltaire.
Alternatives facts, other truths, fake news – all modern day synonyms for lies. It is said we currently live in the Information Age and that age is coming to an end. The Information Age was the successor to the Industrial Age. One definition goes like this: “The Information Age is a phase of human civilization where knowledge and information have enough impact to such an extent that they have become a fundamental medium of exchange and work similar to the way that stone, bronze, iron or steam once were.”
Using the above definition and agreeing that the Information Age is coming to an end, it seems that the successor is the ‘Misinformation Age’. Never before in human history has the world been consumed so rapidly with misinformation. Technology, undoubtedly, has made this readily available at the click of a button or the touch of a screen. We are now in a phase of human civilization where disinformation and “alternative facts” have become tools in the arsenal of many who would want to misguide and create anarchy. And humankind unwittingly is being led en masse down the road of misinformation and fake news. We had propaganda in our history but fake news takes us to a whole different level.
Voltaire, the French philosopher I quoted at the start of my column, could not have imagined when he wrote such words in 1725 that almost 300 years later his pronouncement would even be more applicable. As I proceed with my column a greater understanding can be taken as to how dangerous fake news is in our world today.
It is now a fact that while information is an industry worth billions, similarly fake news is an industry worth billions. In 2016, the Independent carried a news story titled: “US government spent over $500m on fake Al-Qaeda propaganda videos that tracked location of viewers.” The article reported the following: “A former contractor for a UK-based public relations firm says that the Pentagon paid more than half a billion dollars for the production and dissemination of fake Al-Qaeda videos that portrayed the insurgent group in a negative light.”
At a conference I attended two weekends ago in Guyana I was intrigued by one of the presentations. It was entitled Fake News and Alternative Facts in a Post-Truth World. The presenter was Nazim Baksh, a 30-year veteran at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His first slide basically told the story “Social media has a love affair with Fake news”. Nothing could be more truthful. Global usage of social media platforms is estimated at 2.7 billion and expected to reach three billion by 2021. Almost half of that are WhatsApp users. A survey among users found that over 70 per cent of those surveyed trust news family or friends share. And therein lies the challenge. What is real and what is fake? Who knows?
The 2019 Trinidad Carnival featured Gypsy’s calypso Faking Country. This calypso cleverly used double entendre to point out several characteristics of Trinidad. The calypso starts off with Gypsy stating that he is living in a country of fake, fake everything and he vex. He wonders if anything is real anymore. One characteristic he points out is fake news; he sings “fake news on we newspaper, radio and TV too. Don’t talk about social media, nothing in there ain’t true.”
Sadly, Gypsy isn’t far from the truth. Mr Baksh highlighted several facts related to the Fake News Industry. While 71 per cent of Americans believe that fake news is manufactured by foreign persons, groups and agents, the reality is the bulk of clever fake news content is created by Americans. Search for ‘Busta Troll’ whose real name is Christopher Blair and one will find the man responsible for hundreds of stories entirely made up or deliberately misleading. And despite it being fake news, his disinformation was shared millions of times via social media outlets even by some who would be considered reputable. Blair is described as a one man fake news machine.
And the majority of this fake news is racist, pro-white, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and Islamophobic. The fake news is released into the ‘bloodstreams’ of the far right social media sites and get circulated from there into mainstream.
Voltaire’s words are haunting us as fake news is now about life and death. A 2019 Microsoft survey of 22 countries found that 64 per cent of Indians were exposed to online fake news, the global average is 57 per cent. Indians shared more fake content than any other nationality. And horribly, India had the most deaths attributed to fake news in 2018.
One gruesome account happened in July 2018 in India’s western Maharashtra state. Five men were beaten to death by a mob in a village because the people assumed these men were kidnappers of children for body parts. As reported, for about a week before the men arrived, rumours circulated on the messaging system WhatsApp warning of bands of kidnappers roving the area and infiltrating villages to snatch young children.
In one particularly grim version of the rumour, the children’s organs—kidneys and hearts—were harvested and sold. A video that officers believe helped stoke fear and unease shows photos of pale, lifeless children laid out in rows, half covered with sheets. A voiceover warns parents to be vigilant and on the lookout for child snatchers. The photos are not fake, but they are of children who were killed in Syria during a chemical attack on the town of Ghouta in August 2013, five years earlier and thousands of miles away. These five men were unjustly targeted and killed based on fake news. And that scenario is repeated in many cases in several parts of the world.
Bethania Palma’s chilling comparison between the massacres in a Synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018 and recently in the mosques in New Zealand points to the large amounts of time both men spent on social media platforms spewing and marinating in hate. Both men subscribed to prominent white supremacist conspiracy theories contending that a plot was afoot to phase out white people.
Bowers (Pittsburg) believed Jewish people were orchestrating Central American caravans in a scheme to increase non-white immigration to the US in order to “replace” whites, while Tarrant (New Zealand) believed that non-white immigrants and shifting demographics in predominantly white countries such as New Zealand were evidence of a “white genocide.”
There is a command given in our scriptures some 1400+ years ago as follows: “Oh you who have believed, if there comes to you a disobedient one with information, investigate, lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful.”
Such commands are so necessary in our environment today when fake news has regrettably become the source of news. There are several reliable websites that you can fact check. I urge everyone to verify before you share. Even innocent, feel-good news items may not even be true but we are inclined to share them. We must be careful.
Both Christian and Islamic eschatology speaks to the anti-Christ or Dajjal (Islamic teachings) with characteristics of being a great deceiver and liar but many will follow blindly. Is fake now our reality?
April Fool’s Day just passed, but it seems that we are now fooled 365 days in the year.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace. Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)