Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Fabricating news in the digital age | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Romanian Razvan Cernaianu, formerly known as a hacker by the name of TinKode, works at his laptop in his office in Bucharest in this March 15, 2013 file picture. After hacking the Pentagon, NASA and Britain’s Royal Navy for fun, TinKode got a real job as a computer security expert for a Romanian cyber safety consultancy. (REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel/Files)

Even as it opened up new horizons in the field of information technology and allowed for a rapid exchange of information across the world, the era of the Internet and social media has created a lot of room for misunderstandings. The Internet has often been used to illicitly gain access to certain information and news, whether by individuals, organizations or even regimes. This is in order to broadcast rumors that spread like wildfire and cause damage before anybody can discover they are not true.

The most recent example of such fabrication occurred about a month ago, when Wall Street collided with social media after the Twitter account of one of the world’s most reputable news agency, the Associated Press, was hacked.

The tweet—for which the Assad-affiliated Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility—reported that two explosions had targeted the White House and that US president Barack Obama had been injured.

This tweet went viral in seconds, before the international news agency could correct the report, leading to a 149-point fall in the Dow Jones Industrial Average—which measures the financial performance of 30 major US companies—resulting in losses of tens of billions of dollars The Associated Press issued a statement clarifying that the agency’s Twitter account had been hacked while the White House denied the news through its official spokesman, who dismissed the tweet by saying that he had just met with the president a short while before.

Within minutes, the market recovered from the initial freefall, raising questions about the influence that news from social media sources has on the brokers, sometimes prompting them to buy and sell based on unsubstantiated reports. This is one of the side effects of the rapid exchange of information made available by the Internet, for although this has opened the horizons to the business world, it has also created an army of hackers waiting to seize any opportunity.

This incident might be the most prominent in terms of the damages it caused to the market, which is sensitive to such news; however, hackers have a long record of spreading rumors and leaking information.

If any hacker wants to promote or spread such rumors, then the best way to do this is via a prominent media outlet or news agency. Only then will the general public deal with this news as if it were real, without seeking confirmation elsewhere.

Sometimes the fabrication of news is done on purpose, where an obscure media outlet promotes news until a major news agency circulates it, allowing this to spread unsubstantiated.

In a funny incident, a local Iranian news agency quoted a well-known satirical American website as claiming that according to a survey, the majority of rural Americans would vote for Ahmadinejad against Obama because they prefer the character of the Iranian president.

One day later, a Chinese newspaper claimed that, according to a US report, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is the most handsome man alive. Upon closer examination, it was revealed that the two pieces of news come from one source—namely, an American website that is known for its satirical news reports. Because the stories matched their political ideologies, those who quoted the US website did not seek to verify or examine the news in question.

Bizarrely, a number of news agencies reported that according to the World Health Organization (WHO), blondes will “die out in 200 years” as a result of declining birth rates in the West and mass immigration. WHO did not prepare this report, and no one knows the source of this news or how it came to be reported so widely.

These fabricated news stories, as well as the hacking of financial institutions, may be part of the side effects of this era where information can be rapidly exchanged. However, this era has a more positive side, regarding the documentation and search for information as well as the job opportunities that have been made available by the Internet and social media. Since every era has its own challenges, the challenges posed by this digital era lie in verifying information, protecting accounts against hackers, and combating digital piracy.