Fake news is big news

Author: Dr Charles Kriel, Programme Director for Countering Violent Extremism, Corsham Institute

Last week the Prime Minister pointed the finger at Russia for meddling in UK elections. In this comment piece for the Observatory, Corsham Institute’s Dr Charles Kriel takes a look at the rise of fake news, its global impact and why it matters to all of us.

Last week, Britain’s broadsheets blasted a Prime Ministerial message to Russia, accusing the country of rocking the global order through an ongoing programme of aggression - destabilising Donbas, violating sovereign airspace, and mounting “a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption”.

“This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others…. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.” (Link to report.)

The next day, MP Damian Collins - Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee - called on Twitter to release UK-related tweets posted by Russia’s state-financed troll factories, saying he was concerned at “interference by foreign actors in the democratic process of the United Kingdom”. (Link to report.)

And Ciaran Martin, Head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, revealed that Russian hackers had attacked a number of UK media sites. (Link to report.)

The EU has also published its own call for a public consultation on fake news and online disinformation.

This, as my own report — “Fake News, Fake Wars, Fake Worlds” - is published in Defence Strategic Communications, the official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence.

Although too late to include in my report, leading NGO Freedom House this week also released “Freedom on the Net”, claiming the governments of 30 countries use armies of ‘sentiment shapers’ to manipulate public opinion via social media posts. Unlike with Russia, most of these countries limit their work to the warp of domestic opinion, sowing manipulative messaging and disinformation through their countries’ social media spheres.

Sanja Kelly, the project’s director, said, “The fabrication of grassroots support for government policies on social media creates a closed loop in which the regime essentially endorses itself, leaving independent groups and ordinary citizens on the outside.” (Link to report.)

Researchers from Edinburgh University have identified 419 Twitter accounts run by the Russian Internet Research Agency, attempting to influence UK politics. Quoted in the Guardian, Collins said, “What is at stake is whether Russia has constructed an architecture which means they have thousands of accounts with which they can bombard [us] with fake news and hyper-partisan content,” he said.

Several months in the works, the idea for my report came as I closely followed the story of Cambridge Analytica’s support of the Trump campaign. As I wrote, “Cambridge Analytica is a once-obscure data analytics company whose Vice President, Stephen K. Bannon, went on to become White House Chief Strategist for Donald Trump. Largely owned by American right-wing activist billionaire Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica (CA) specialises in influence and election campaigns, profiling potential voters through social media, and analysing their personalities before sending them micro-targeted Facebook ads in order to nudge them either to turn out to vote—or often more crucially—to not.”

Was it possible they might have supported the EU Referendum as well? They claimed to. And nearly as quickly, claimed not to. And if they did, were they - or actors supported by Russia - producing industrial-scale computational propaganda to manipulate the electorate to leave the European Union?

Along the way, I examine the state of fake news, not only drawing on the latest headlines around scaled manipulation of social media, but also through a review of four works - books, a documentary film and an online research project.

Computational Propaganda Worldwide is part of the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the Oxford Internet Institute. Housed at Oxford University, it is a series of case studies analysing evidence from Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

The documentary is famed filmmaker Adam Curtis’ Hypernormalisation, a sprawling document of contemporary control and chaos, drawing lines of connection between a failed New York City bond issue in 1975 and Hafez al-Assad’s support of suicide bombing in Beirut, and more recently the use of artificial intelligence in monitoring public sentiment, and the invention of non-linear warfare.

There are also two books. Prototype Politics is a history of big data in D. C., and Emotions and Personality in Personalized Services is a practitioner’s guide to manipulating users online by creating better experiences.

In Corsham Institute’s submission to the current House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry on Fake news, we’ve made clear that the pervasion of fake news adds to the subcultures of extremism growing in the UK. We’ve recommended the funding of affordable software tools to help community organisations manage and measure their counter-extremism campaigns. We’ve also recommended that the government should make significant increases in budgets for capacity development for civil society organisations engaged in counter-narrative programmes in the context of countering extremism. These include charity and open-journalism programmes, countering extremism programmes, and access-to-information programmes.

The history of fake news traces as far back as pre-Christian Persia and the Behistun Inscription; it will continue into the future as long as there are political actors in opposition. But this does nothing to lessen its acute threat to both the connected and the civil society.

The answer to our current moral panic around the rise of fake news and propaganda lies in constant vigilance, civil discourse, and an ongoing dedication to the creation of a fair, inclusive, prosperous and creative society based on trust and security.