We are living in an age of disinformation characterised by an unprecedented amount of fake news, fake social media accounts, fake videos and fake photographs.
Technology has made it easier for people to create content and disseminate it across many platforms to reach millions worldwide. Social media has broken down the boundaries of the traditional media. But rather than building trust through objective and accurate reporting, it allows anyone who knows how to post any kind of disinformation to mislead thousands, perhaps even millions, of people into believing lies.
Egypt is facing a plague of false information spread on social media platforms. The government is doing its best to correct such wrong information and to provide the truth. From rumours concerning rising electricity prices to closing highways, it has worked tirelessly to give correct information and to counter rumours spread on social media, so much so that news bulletins today contain many reports countering fake news.
The social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been accused of promoting fake news. Ahead of the European Parliament elections last May, the EU found evidence of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” that indicated “continued and sustained disinformation activity” by Russian sources on these platforms. It urged all social media platforms operating in the EU to step up efforts to fight fake news.
More than 600 Facebook groups and pages were reported to have spread disinformation and hate speech before the elections, and they generated more than 763 million user views.
Last week, Twitter acted to suspend millions of hacked accounts for having violated its policy regarding fake accounts. These false accounts were reported as operating from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Ecuador and China. They were accused of spreading disinformation and using large-scale tactics like spreading content through fake accounts and spamming through retweets.
Taking advantage of such open platforms, some people may misuse them by creating a daily onslaught of fabricated news stories that are deliberately intended to promote or demonise political parties, political candidates, rival football clubs or even provide false information on fashion, health, religion and so on.
Though many platforms have taken measures to help control the fake accounts shared on them, these polices have not been enough to deal with the problem. Twitter has tried to limit the number of fake accounts through reporting and suspending them, especially for ones which go in for the large-scale exploitation of these platforms by using them against governments, such as seems to be happening in the Hong Kong protests. WhatsApp has controlled the number of shares a user can forward a message to, limiting these to only five in the wake of violence fuelled by rumours in India last year.
Fake news was even the word of the year in 2017, according to the Collins Dictionary of English. According to Khaled Al-Faramawi, a journalist at the newspaper Al-Watan, fake news is any content which is not partially or wholly true. For him, sheer disinformation is not “news” at all, even if it has the word “fake” before it. The solution to controlling the amount of misinformation spread on social media platforms is better media literacy, he says.
Various initiatives have been taken to combat fake news in Egypt. According to many analysts, fake news becomes more active at times of turmoil, something emphasised by Ahmed Esmat, a pioneer in the field and director of the Alexandria Media Forum. There are various things a user can do to help detect fake news or fake accounts on social media platforms, he says.
“Don’t read only the headlines, but look at the content of the story itself,” Esmat said. Any user can be drawn in by attention-grabbing headlines, but these often have no associated content. It is important to check the source of the content, the date of its publication and of course who wrote it.
“Who doesn’t know how to detect photographs and videos that have been made using Photoshop or computer software,” he asks. “Many of us, right?” Esmat added that users can train themselves to detect such false images or videos, using tools to check them including Google Reverse Image, the Serelay start-up site and YouTube Data Viewer.
Many Egyptians who are famous for their great sense of humour and attraction to satire can also fall into the trap of not differentiating Internet memes and true content, Esmat said. “Memes can be very funny, but their content can be subtle and manipulative and intended to set an agenda,” he noted.
“Always question the kind and the content of any news you are sharing,” Esmat said. “That content must be verified to find out how much of it is authentic. Ask yourself why you are sharing it and for what purpose.”
Spoof and parody Websites should be dealt with carefully. Spoofs refer to phishing sites which use designs, logos and texts to trick users into thinking that they represent some other uninvolved party. Check media accuracy. “If the news content has spelling or grammar mistakes, this may mean that the news is inaccurate,” Esmat added.
Sometimes readers’ comments can help users to detect if there is a scam going on behind the information involved. “If a post is authentic, it will likely contain the place, the time and the person writing it. “To avoid being taken in, you should check the source of the news you read, look at the editors and writers and think about why it is being published and shared,” Esmat concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.