The internet’s darker side: Fake accounts and fake news threaten to poison the online environment

Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to imagine life without the internet. The virtual world has grown to be a seemingly infinite series of platforms where governments, corporations and individuals all come together; where we can find any information we desire and quick answers to most, if not all, of our questions. And within the vast online realm, social media has become the place where interpersonal interactions happen.

The internet was designed as an open environment. However, the concept was ambitious at the time and society has shaped it as a platform to share and access knowledge and information. In this light, monitoring and regulating such online content may seem to contradict the original principle of the internet, but this is the very thing that ended up happening.

As society becomes progressively more digital, we are facing challenges that once would have been unthinkable — and the solutions remain yet to be discovered. The nature of the internet is vulnerable to the creation of misleading content intended to influence people, which has resulted in the phenomenon of fake news. The huge viral effect fake news and fake accounts, which spreads particularly on social media, is pervading all aspects of today society.

“Fake news is everywhere, misleading us and building misconceptions about people and events. Because it is difficult to identify them in the first place, it is evern harder to address them. Fake news has become a crucial problem in society, effecting individual reputations, warping political elections and public opinion, ultimately threating democracy.” said Stefania Barbaglio, Director at PR Agency Cassiopeia Services.

Research by the European Commission showed that, 85 percent of EU respondents believe fake news to be a problem in their country, with almost 83 percent perceiving false or misrepresentative information as a threat to democracy.

Fake news is as much as a problem as fake accounts:

Research from Indiana University Network Science Institute indicates that between 9 to 15% of active Twitter accounts are not real, meaning it is very likely that less than 90% of current social media users are humans.

During the six months that ended in March 2018, Facebook disabled a total of almost 1.3 billion accounts that they were deemed to be fake. Out of the remaining accounts Facebook estimates between 3 and 4 percent are likely to be fake. This amounts to between 66 million and 88 million accounts in the network.

Fake News: A political weapon

Social media has become the primary means of communication and interaction for businesses, politicians and decision makers to reach their audiences, limiting the effect of the impact of mainstream and broadcast media.

With widespread political mis-information from the political realm on the social media , voters are increasigngly vulnerable to being manipulated by information fabricated to fit into propaganda.

The problem is indeed both dangerous and subtle, and the solutions to which are still being in the making. In the UK, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee warned that the UK is facing a “democratic crisis”, with voters being manipulated by “pernicious views”. The Committee highlights the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans”.

Populism and fake news together represent the start of slippery slope towards greater problems of misinformation. In fact, Populist figures address societal concerns with high emotional appeal. The current wave of populists rejects traditional democratic values and globalisation. Fake news is one of their weapons to destroy ‘the establishment’ and turn people against democratic values.

A study from Stanford University analysed the 2016 US elections and found that there had been 115 fake pro-Trump stories on Facebook shared 30 million times, compared to 41 fake pro-Clinton stories shared 7.6 million times.

Harmful Social Media

Recent events have shown that social media’s biggest marke, developing countries — are the ones that have been experiencing the worst headache.

In June, India witnessed the murder of the eight people after rumours about alleged child kidnappers spread via WhatsApp. In 2017 alone, more than 30 deaths were linked to rumours spread via the app.

Given the circumstances, India, a country with 500 million people online, became the worldleader in internet shutdowns, as the government saw it as the only measure to prevent more violent attacks spurred. According to Wired, last year there were 70 shutdowns in the country — a big jump from 31 in 2016 and just 3 in 2012.

“Internet shutdown is the favourite go-to mechanism to handle fake news,” says Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an MP in India.

"Shutting down internet connection, can’t be a solution,’” said Stefania Barbaglio. "Bans, prohibitions, and censorship of social media are never effective in stopping certain behaviours and fighting misinformation. It is up to individuals to take appropriate action and make use of novel solutions to make effective change. We should acknowledge the inherent dangers that lie within the open environment of the internet, but also the new technologies which aim to empower people, will be pivotal in this regard. The Internet is evolving into a new platform for citizens, Internet X, to allow everyone to fully express themselves, share of information, data, and resources."

As much as it feels like the virtual sphere is contaminated, crises like this can in fact be used as a catalyst to build a better online space and build a stronger foundation for a fairer environments. They also reminds us of the importance of carrying the values that sustain our society into every public space — whichever shape or form it may take.