Month: November 2017

‘Bots’ – The problem of ‘fake news’ in the age of social media

By now, the phrase ‘fake news’ is no longer new to many people, but its influence couldn’t be more widespread. We have all been victims whether we like to admit it or not. We have been exposed to propaganda disguised as news through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or Instagram and some of us have ‘fallen’ for it. We all like to think we are not being manipulated or controlled by what we read or see on social media, but the truth is, we are.

FAke News
Photo credit – http://www.mashable.com

The influence of ‘fake news’ is more devastating in countries where there are delicate balances of power and spreading false rumours could easily offset this balance, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. For example in multi-ethnic societies like the ones in Africa and Asia, spreading false information about an ethnic group could quickly increase tensions and could lead to strife, or conflict in extreme cases. It could alter the political landscape and cause power shifts.

Countries, organisations or individuals who want to influence the socio-political dynamics of a society know the fact that most people will believe what they read, if you can sensationalise it enough. Gone are the days when media corporations are the only ones who could wield this kind of influence, today, an 18 year old with some knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and video editing software could create powerful ‘false information’ that would get the attention of millions of people. I think this is scary enough, but when you now realise there are actually groups and syndicates out there (sometimes sanctioned by governments) sending out internet ‘bots’ in their millions into societies with the sole aim of churning out hundreds of tweets per hour, spreading false information manufactured with state of the art softwares, then the ball game changes.

This week it was exposed that there are state-run organisations in Russia who have well developed methods of targeting western democracies with false information with the sole aim of creating suspicion and fracturing societies. The allegations are endless, the UK referendum, the US elections, the Immigration debate, the Catalonia referendum etc.

A particular photo was held up this week as a clear evidence of this type of deliberate misinformation for political gain. I could remember seeing this picture (below) circulating widely on twitter when the tragedy occurred on London Bridge earlier in 2017. The reaction it generated was that of fury and anger. The tweet read:

“Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”

Blog image
Photo credit: London Evening Standard

At a time of difficult discussions around immigration and religious freedom in Britain,  this photo added a lot of fuel to the fire, particularly for far-right groups who were already injecting a dose of toxicity to the debates.

It has now been discovered that the twitter account behind this photo was actually an internet bot manufactured in Russia. An internet bot as defined by Wikipedia as “a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone”. So these are computer codes controlled from thousands of miles away, which wield ten or twenty times more ‘tweet-power’ than a human being.

Contrary to the tweet, the young woman wasn’t ignoring the crime scene, but rather horrified at what was happening around her. The photo was taken out of context and used for a malicious narrative.

As the general population is now beginning to understand, millions of twitter accounts, facebook profiles and instagram accounts are actually bots. Many of these accounts are used for criminal purposes, contain malicious content or were created to spread false information very quickly across the web. Bots do not know borders or political boundaries. Tweets sent by bots in St.Petersburg will be seen in London in seconds and its intensity beyond your wildest imagination as it saturates the media space at a rate that can never be matched by a human being.

I don’t know what the solution to ‘fake news’ and malicious bots is, but I am sure Russia is not the only suspect. The extent to which this actually affect societies and shape public opinion is yet to be clearly established.

The only effort we can all make is to make sure we do not believe everything we read or view on the internet. Many videos though look like they are real, many times they have been carefully ‘doctored’ and taken out of context to drive home a particular agenda. I see this all the time on Facebook. Social media is fast becoming a playground for people with an agenda. Some of these posts for example disguise as an emotional appeal, designed to tug at your heart strings, be careful, and do your research before you fall for it. I see it all the time, people jumping to conclusions on a sensational post on facebook. Protect your mind.

 

Milan and Como – A journey in pictures

I enjoy visiting European cities and exploring their history, food and architecture. This year it was Milan and Lake Como, both Italian destinations, which can not be more different. Milan is a huge bustling metropolis full of life and colour, though it lacks the character you’ll find in cities like Barcelona or Rome, which are set against a backdrop of spectacular historical sights. Milan is more of a commercial centre with lots of traffic, trains and trams (the 3Ts). The city is, as expected, dotted with coffee shops and pizzerias like in any other Italian city. Como on the contrary is a small city set by a huge lake in a mountainous region.

We (with my wife) stayed in the bustling area of Navigli in Milan (named after the Naviglio Grande canal which runs through the northern Italian region of Lombardy). This area is full of bohemian, hipsters and trendy types relaxing after a hard day’s work in the city. Lined with cafes, bars and restaurants, this area comes alive at night with music, chatter and the rattling of wine glasses.

We treated ourselves to a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine outside a hip restaurants one evening, and just watched the night close in on this beautiful area. The weather was warm, the music smooth and the wine was…well, red.

fullsizeoutput_ac5
Navigli area of Milan (copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)

We spent four nights in Milan and during this time we visited The Duomo, the limestone coloured cathedral that sits majestically in the heart of Milan. The Duomo is about the main attraction in Milan and just next to it is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the huge indoor luxury shopping centre. We had a nice time looking into Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton shops. Some items in these shops would cost me my whole year’s salary….before tax!

fullsizeoutput_abe
The Duomo in Milan (copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)
fullsizeoutput_ac8
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – Milan ((copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)

After exploring the sights, sounds and aroma of Milan, we went off on the fast train to Como, further north of Lombardy, close to the Swiss border, to spend three nights. As we approached on the train, we could sense that this area is like no other in Italy. Far into the distance we could see mountains covered in green vegetation and houses perched in the most impossible angles around these mountains. I immediately thought whether any of these belonged to the American actor George Clooney, who is popularly known to own a property around this area.

fullsizeoutput_abb
The view just coming out of the train station at Como (copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)

We spent three nights in Como and it is one of the most spectacular areas I have ever visited.

fullsizeoutput_ac6
The Harbour – Lake Como (copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)

During our stay in Como, we decided to take a trip to one of the mountain towns and we picked Bellagio, an old town steeped in history of power struggles between affluent Italian families in the middle ages. The villas that we see dotted around the Como mountains were once home to the creme de la creme of Italian society who made these villas statements of their wealth. Bellagio was around an hour by bus from Como but this is a bus journey like no other as you are blessed with the most stunning sites of the lake from high up in the mountains with the road winding through quaint Italian villages. It is not for the faint hearted though as the roads were quite narrow with cars having to stop for each other around bends and corners, and deep cliffs on the road sides into the lake.

Bellagio is a small but beautiful town with cobbled streets and colourful houses. We just milled around the town looking into shops and watching the world go by. We had lunch in a pizzeria overlooking the lake which was relaxing to say the least.

fullsizeoutput_ac7
Bellagio rooftops – a view into the mountains (copyright: Onethinkingdude.com)

We spent a total of 7 nights in sunny Italy and returned home, stepping out of the plane into a cold, wet and rainy Heathrow. Back to reality I muttered to myself!