There is a major problem in the world right now. It is not North Korea. It is not oil price and certainly not any of the global political leaders. The world has one key challenge: social media which has been turned into a fakecial media.
If we do not do anything in the next few years, the world will live fact-free, because anyone can create its version of facts and propagate it. The implications will be huge and could challenge the fabrics upon which civilization is built upon. As you read how the U.S. presidential election was allegedly affected by foreign hackers, you will agree that man has the capability to deceive at scale with supreme outcomes. From Bloomberg newsletter:
Cybersecurity firm FireEye found thousands of fake accounts linked to Russia that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. It found that on election day, one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times. Suspected Russian bots even caused the hashtag #HillaryDown to start trending.
This is indeed scary. People can use social media to create a distortion and have excellent results. For something to “trend” on Twitter means that the item is popular. It means the world has joined in a bandwagon with agreement in commonality. Simply, many people were deceived, but they did not know. Why? The contents seemed genuine and real. But it was not.
The biggest challenge today is that while TV and radio are regulated, social media which is the 21st century radio and TV is not regulated. While antenna TV can reach people bounded in a geographical area, social media can reach the world, unbounded. Yet, the message carried by social media is not controlled. The implication is that messages which cannot go through radio and TV can easily find propagation paths via social media. The Russians which are accused to have swayed the U.S. presidential election could not have bought airtime in U.S. TV and radio stations, but they easily penetrated the social media sites and executed their strategies. It was immaterial if the content was heard on radio or read on Facebook. The expected outcome was achieved. Facebook delivered the goods. No law exists today to ensure a fact-based world in social media as we have for TV and radio. It is not likely anyone that tries creating such regulations will succeed unless you live in Eritrea, North Korea and possibly China.
“Everybody realizes that the lines between TV and online are blurring more and more everyday,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One, a group that seeks to limit the impact of large donors on politicians. “We have television and communication law that was written in the 1930s and we have campaign law that was written in the 1970s. Neither is appropriate for the 21st century.”
There is a real issue. And the issue is that people can have identities which are fake in social media. That enables them to intoxicate minds, accelerating fake news with no consequences. With the structure of the web which has served the world very well for decades, there is nothing anyone can really do. The openness of the internet is going to create a real challenge in the future. It will be a real chaos because this distortion effectiveness will get better.
“Social-media platforms offer the ability to target millions of users based upon a wealth of highly-detailed information,” John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings, etc wrote in a letter to the Federal Elections Commission. “As we have seen, the low cost of reaching these users equips hostile foreign actors with a powerful new tool for disruption of our democratic process.”
When the Nigerian Army and the IPOB members clashed in Abia State few days ago, it was tough to ascertain the facts. Social media presented visuals and counter-visuals that left many confused. Even supposedly real videos were disputed. This is big. It goes beyond free speech to speech with free facts. If the world fails to fix this challenge, the global order will be broken.
In Nigeria today, politicians caught on tape committing crime will say that their voices were computer generated. Courts are struggling to admit evidence because anything digital can be discredited. It does not have to be so.
The next U.S. election will have this fake news and propaganda problem. It is not going away. It will go 2-3 election cycles before the U.S. Congress will pass a regulation requiring Facebook to demand users to validate their accounts with government-issued IDs before they will have posting rights, at least in contents U.S. users can see. Clearly, Congress will threaten Facebook and other social media empires. The threat will be: do it or we will break you into pieces. Facebook will do it. Twitter will do it. And Google will also follow along. Where they fail, the heart of civilization will be irreversibly broken.
In Nigeria, government will increasingly go antagonistic as it tries to control its message. As fake news move upstream in the 2019 election now that the art has been launched in America, Nigerian Senate will take drastic action to curtail.
But there is a challenge: both America and Nigeria cannot fix this problem. But that will not mean that they will not try. Because your fake news may be my fact news, no one can regulate that.