‘I don’t like passing on rumors, I just don’t know what else to do with them,” a friend of mine once quipped. Those were the days when rumors were churned out locally in an anonymous rumor mill. Now they have a global reach, courtesy of social media. And there’s a reason the word “viral” – so positive in cyberspace – is so negative when you come down to earth.
I started looking into writing a column on fake news a few weeks ago, but real life got in the way: The huge oil spill which covered Israel’s coastline in thick, black tar took precedence. Nonetheless, I was interested to discover a fake image that has been around so long that it has become an accepted icon, despite its untruthful origins.
The photo of the blackened body of a marine turtle on an Israeli beach captured the essence of the recent ecological disaster. It reminded me of the image of the oil-soaked cormorant in Kuwait that turned into the symbol of the 1991 Gulf War and Saddam’s control of the oil terminals. Within days, the first image was joined by a flock of similar pictures.
Only now, 40 years later, did I find out that this was more about winged lies than winged truth. According to a European Journalism Observatory Report, those images had been shot in another country at another time, testimony to a different case of pollution. Ornithologists observed that there were no cormorants in the Gulf in January, they arrive only in spring. “A reporter admitted having shot other scenes of ‘black cormorants’ with animals taken from a zoo and soaked ad hoc with oil” – a double crime, in my opinion.
Fake news is not new. In a recent interview with Reshet Bet’s Kalman Liebskind and Asaf Liberman, political strategist Moshe Klughaft suggested that the biblical sin of the spies could be considered as the first case of fake news. He pointed out Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 13:27 – that the spies had started out by saying that it’s a land flowing with milk and honey because any lie that does not contain a truth at the beginning would not have been believed.
Klughaft’s take on the fake was fascinating. As he noted on the morning radio show, the topic is always relevant but the combination of elections and the corona pandemic has made it particularly pertinent.
He started out with a simple definition: “Fake news is a lie pretending to be genuine news, with the deliberate intent of misleading the public.”
The term took off with the US presidential election race of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016. And the sky’s the limit – even for the Flat Earth Society. Perhaps the best known spreaders of fake news today are members of QAnon, who spread allegations of a secret network of pedophiles, including Angela Merkel and Clinton. Another claim is that masks are a tool to help child traffickers. There’s nothing funny in such peculiar claims. The fake stories about Clinton’s pedophile ring resulted in a shooting attack at a pizza parlor that was supposed to be the center in the global trade of kidnapped children.
Blood libels are a lethal form of fake news. Think of Muhammad al-Dura, probably the best-known Palestinian child martyr. The whole world remembers how he was killed by gunfire in September 2000, adding fuel to the nascent Second Intifada. What most of the world doesn’t know or care about is that an IDF investigation found that the 12-year-old could only have been shot by Palestinian gunfire.
Fake news about corona vaccinations also costs lives. Spreading misinformation helps the spread of the virus. While anti-vaxxers voice concerns that big pharmaceutical companies are promoting the vaccines for their own profit, Klughaft noted that the incentive of the spreaders of fake news must be examined. Fake news is big business.
He noted the curious case of the village of Veles in Macedonia which became an empire of fake news in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Residents of Veles had no political interest whatsoever in the US presidential elections but they had a vested business interest in creating fake news. The fake news sites built and run by people in Veles were very profitable. The money didn’t come from candidates or their supporters but from advertising. In true social media form, the crazier the lies and fake news, the more traffic they generated and the more money came in from ads on the sites.
In 2019, following pressure, Facebook and Twitter tried to tackle fake news accounts by, among other steps, demanding greater transparency that made it hard to create news sites or buy political ads without information on who was funding them. There is, however, a question whether they haven’t gone too far. When several social media platforms in January permanently canceled Trump’s accounts, I was among those who voiced concerns about who gets to vet the vetters and who has the final word in determining what is true and false and acceptable, or not.
Fake news has a life of its own – and will always find a way to live it. As Facebook and other platforms tightened their rules, channels such as Telegram, which are unsupervised, have taken over. Once an item has become viral on one platform it inevitably is shared on others.
Ahead of next week’s elections in Israel, there have been claims from both Left and Right of the use of bots (web robots) and fake accounts that have been created to influence the results. Among the risks are that fake news spread on election day could affect voter turnout. For example, a rumor that a COVID-positive voter was seen at a polling station could deter people from going to vote there.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post’s Zev Stub this week, Etay Maor, senior director of security strategy at Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity firm Cato Networks, said the biggest risk of election interference from overseas is from misinformation campaigns by malicious actors.
“These people want to undermine the entire system by convincing people that it doesn’t work,” he said. “They want you to think it doesn’t matter if you vote.”
He told Stub, “Creating distrust is actually the goal of these actors, not just the means. In the US, we have watched the same actor invite some people to a Black Lives Matter protest and others to a planned parenthood protest on the same night.”
And “deepfake” technology allows hostile actors to create lifelike videos of politicians and influencers who appear to be saying something which in fact they did not say, Maor noted.
Klughaft pointed out an overlooked danger of fake news: It could deter good people from entering politics and public life. If every tiny incident from the past could be turned into a major story, people will prefer to steer clear of the public sphere.
In the non-political field, fake news has been mobilized in psychological warfare. The IDF has its legendary “Rav-Seren Shmuati” “Maj. Rumor,” the figure who is blamed for spreading false stories quicker than wildfire. The flames can easily be fanned.
It has never been easier to create and disseminate fake news. Checking the veracity of an item, unfortunately, is not as easy, despite the social media sites dedicated to sniffing out spam. It’s natural to be more excited by the sensational than the mundane, especially if the story fits with a person’s existing beliefs. Possibly it boils down to that cliché that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. Conversely, if it sounds too bad to be true, check again who’s saying it, where and why.
It takes longer to uncover a false story than to spread a rumor, but it’s more satisfying. Although you don’t have to take my word for it.[email protected]