No one online is immune to reading, and buying into, false news.
Earlier this month, a 28-year-old walked into Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria on Washington D.C.’s Connecticut Ave., and fired a couple of shots. Luckily, no one was hurt. The incident drew a heavy response from the police. The man was arrested and found in possession of three guns, including a rifle.
He told the police that he was there to investigate news that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign chair John Podesta “ran a child sex ring at the basement of a pizzeria in D.C., Comet Ping Pong.”
The rumor had been circulating on social media and websites known for posting fake news for some weeks before the incident. It was spread further on social media by Donald Trump supporters and white supremacists, with headlines like “Pizzagate: How 4Chan Uncovered the Sick World of Washington’s Occult Elite.”
On Dec. 23, to quote a report in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “a fake report by a site called AWD News … misquoted former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon as saying Israel would destroy Pakistan should it send ground forces to Syria to battle ISIS.” Haaretz went on to say, “According to AWD News’ false report, Ya’alon was responding to a recent announcement by Pakistan that it intends to put boots on the ground as part of the war on ISIS.”
The report begot a response from Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, who tweeted from his verified Twitter account: “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear [sic] state too.”
Israel’s ministry of defense responded through its official Twitter account: “The statement attributed to fmr Def Min Yaalon ref Pakistan was never said.” A second tweet by the ministry read: “reports referred to by the Pakistani Def Min are entirely false.”
Pakistani tweeps, especially those opposed to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, had a field day over Asif’s gaffe.
But the issue goes much beyond that: the majority of Asif’s critics are vulnerable to the same trap, and often make the same mistake.
There’s something terribly superficial that inheres in Twitter in particular and social media in general. But that in and of itself would not, and does not, matter until these fora are utilized by the human using them. It’s analogous to a gun, decidedly a dangerous tool. But dissembled it is nothing more than a mass of steel, polymer and some springs. Assembled, it is ready for its deadly role, the discharge of a cartridge. Put the cartridge in and chamber it and it becomes even deadlier. Put a human behind it and it becomes lethal.
It’s the same with social media. Its combination of speed, superficial brevity, distance, anonymity (often), the desire to hold a view on everything, regardless of any expertise, the general tendency of an average human mind to disregard facts to which the mind is not predisposed, the sheer offloading of resentment about any number of issues or even people, partisan attitudes, the inability to express oneself in a structured way in any language known to man or beast, the freedom to abuse and indulge in calumny and get away with it, the inability to process news or complex facts and often just the desire to create mischief make social media about as clean in its expression as a pigsty.
This is not even an exhaustive list. Every one of these problems can be picked up and studied in much greater detail. George Orwell wrote an essay, Politics and the English Language, arguing that the “English language is in a bad way” and stating that “It [the language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
He thought that the process was reversible. I am not sure he would have been so confident about reversing the rot if he could somehow see into the future of digital communication which, it appears to me, is purposely designed to not only exploit the huge market that comprises the moronic football crowd with its fleeting attention span, but actually empowers it by handing it a digital gun, a smartphone. Just the organic link between the ability to think and to express those thoughts in any meaningful way can become a major study in relation to the tool people have today and whose bad use we experience every day.
The vulgar now have the freedom to abuse the accomplished, the kind of democracy Socrates was so afraid of and which he determined would lead to the worst form of dictatorship.
Add to this the wickedly smart who are out there to exploit the mindless suckers like the man who traveled from North Carolina to the pizzeria in D.C. to investigate whether Clinton and Podesta were running a child sex ring in the basement of an eatery that doesn’t even have a basement. It’s the wicked who run the fake news sites and rely on the utterly stupid to lap up the hogwash.
Back in the slow days of newspapers, things worked differently. There was gestation time for news reports. That time afforded reporters and editors to vet, fact-check, and cross-reference news. Newspapers were accredited, as were journalists. Everything went through a process. Now, all you need do is to buy a smartphone and become a “journalist”. What is disseminated now, or can be, in theory, has no checks. There’s no accreditation, no process of checking, no vetting. It’s a free for all.
Even so, back in those days, H. L. Mencken could write an essay on the History of the Bathtub in 1917, a jocular hoax, which was picked up by everyone. Mencken had to write to dispel the impression that what he had written should be taken seriously. Yet, today, we know and possibly have read the original hoax article but not the one that sought to dispel the original.
Such, then, is the problem of presenting a hoax confidently. Mencken could swing it because he had the dictatorial intellect of Dr. Johnson. Today’s hoaxes thrive on the viral nature of the Internet and general stupidity wedded to biases.
But there’s a difference between the idiot from North Carolina and a sitting defense minister. Are we now going to see states coming to blows on the basis of fake news? Some weeks ago, U.S. media were debating the question of how to deal with president-elect Donald Trump’s tweets: should his tweets be ignored or reported because those 140 characters come from a man who is about to enter the White House? The answer came the day Trump first tweeted about F-35s and tanked Lockheed Martin’s stock price.
In our own case, some systems need to be put in place. Earlier this year, when Iran’s president was in Islamabad, then DG-ISPR, Lt.-Gen. Asim Bajwa tweeted that the issue of an Indian spy was discussed with the Iranian president. It was a hasty, undiplomatic tweet by an official who had no business tweeting the contents of any discussion between the principals. The adviser to the prime minister, Sartaj Aziz, had to personally clear the air with the Iranian foreign minister.
Now, we have Asif responding with the haste that comes with using social media, especially Twitter. There’s a simple expedient that can be used: no minister should use Twitter to make any policy statement. The Government of Pakistan (read: the ministry of foreign affairs) must be the only platform to respond through proper channels before that vetted, fact-checked, cross-referenced policy response is allowed to make it to the digital platforms, quoting from the official statement.
The web is a dangerous place and it will become more dangerous in the future. We need to study it carefully and use it even more carefully.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider