Searching for truth on war in the rubble of fake news
'My dad is injured now. I am crying. Bana." The seven-year-old girl, Bana Alabed, sent the tweet from eastern Aleppo a few days ago, as Syrian government forces closed in on her neighbourhood.
The first online response to her was not empathy, but total cynicism: "Wow! I'm crying but I can tweet… propaganda." As bombs were dropping on Aleppo, a war of words was raging online that made the US "fake news" row look like child's play. Trapped residents of the city, some of them anti-government activists, posted videos of what they feared would be their last messages to the world before a potential massacre. Naysayers immediately claimed that the videos were a coordinated propaganda campaign mounted by rebels who were Al Qa'ida or Isil supporters.
What to believe? How is an interested browser in Europe to know? Against a growing tidal wave of contradictory information flooding the internet, searching for the truth starts to seem like a fool's errand. But although trying to sort the fake from the real might sometimes feel fruitless, it's not. As readers, companies, media and governments get shrewder about misinformation online, it will become easier to distinguish trash from truth. The question is whether we are willing to put in the effort.
Social media propaganda has been proliferating for years, recently spearheaded by Isil. But the Western world really woke up to the spread of "fake news" - bogus news stories that play on prejudices to spread misinformation - during the US election.
As the campaigns became increasingly vicious, outrageously false stories spread across social media like wildfire. Millions of users read and shared stories from fake news sites claiming that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump, that protesters at Trump rallies were being paid to be there or that Mr Trump had, in 1998, claimed he'd one day run for president as a Republican because they were "the dumbest group of voters in the country". All were false.
Now, Facebook is trying to tackle the problem with a new set of tools. Users will be able to flag news they think is fake, which will prompt a team of Facebook staff to assess whether it comes from an obviously bogus new website. News from legitimate websites will be eligible for fact-checking by third parties, hired by Facebook, and readers who click on such links will be warned that the truthfulness of the story is in question.
The tools strike a good balance between trusting readers and educating them. No one wants to be a chump, so a lot of readers who receive a warning that a news article might be a hoax are at least likely to think twice. Just as we've become wiser about not clicking on links in spam emails, readers will gradually become more sophisticated in their use of social networks.
But what happens when the propaganda war is so chaotic, so remote and so vicious, as it is in Aleppo? I wanted to know whether Bana Alabed was a real Syrian girl suffering in the brutal war or whether she was the creation of rebels or Islamists.
Fortunately, her case has attracted so much attention that an investigative journalism website called Bellingcat decided to check it out. A former British army officer called Nick Waters performed basic but important tests: using geolocation data from her posts, he verified that she was indeed in eastern Aleppo. He then used satellite imagery to find exactly where, on maps of the city, various photos from her Twitter feed had been taken, verifying that they were all real places.
I found the analysis convincing. But I had to search for it. Western governments need to get cleverer about responding to the brutal propaganda war. They should confirm and rebut claims by offering evidence and uphold the truth, even if it's sometimes inconvenient.
As readers get savvier, so do propagandists. So the battle is never conclusively won. But those people and institutions who care about the truth have to fight for it, because fake news isn't just a matter of losing or winning elections. Sometimes, it's a matter of life or death. (© Daily Telegraph, London)