Fake news: it’s as old as the hill but now moving into new pastures

Pope Francis’ denunciation last week of the “snake tactics” of those who spread fake news is not as he pointed out a modern phenomenon.

In fact the first case of misinformation crops up in the early pages of the Bible when Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit.

The first case of misinformation crops up in the early pages of the Bible when Eve is tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made,” it says in Genesis 3:1. “He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The key point here is the serpent’s use of doubt as a tactic to undermine the truth. It is why theologians have long argued that doubt is the antithesis of faith.

So while it is a truism to say that misinformation, spin, lies and deceit have been around forever, the difference today is social media has made fake news much easier to disseminate.

As the BBC’s Mike Wending recently pointed out, one of the first times the term “fake news” was used in public was in a speech by Hilary Clinton in December 2016.

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have denounced fake news

In it she mentioned “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year”.

“It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences,” she said. “This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk… lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities.”

President-elect Trump – never one to miss a social media buzzword – seized upon the phrase in January 2017, a little over a week before taking office.

In response to a question, he said “you’re fake news” to CNN reporter Jim Acosta. Around the same time he started repeating the term on Twitter.

As Wending points out, “since then phrase has been used more or less continuously by Trump and other world leaders, as well as by countless political operatives, journalists and ordinary people”.

As a rough guide, he points out, a Google News search of “fake news” throws up 5 million results, and already in 2018 the phrase has been used about two million times on Twitter.

The phrase has now become so all-encompassing that any perceived misinformation, spin, conspiracy theories, mistakes – even reporting that people just don’t like – have been put into its pigeon-hole.

The phrase – whether used as a sponsored post, an advert, a visual meme, a bot on Twitter, a rumour – or just information people take exception to – has become so ubiquitous that some experts are now refraining from using the term altogether.

And don’t think that it’s just the written word that is under attack. Images and sound recordings are also vulnerable. Of the two, audio is the easiest to fake but it is probably only a question of time before video follows.

As The Economist recently reported, a new technique called Generative Audio uses neural networks to learn the statistical properties of the audio source in question, then reproducing those properties directly in any context, modelling how speech changes not just second-by-second, but millisecond-by-millisecond.

Fake news has been around since time immemorial, but social media has made it more ubiquitous

It is a system that can literally put words into the mouth of Mr Trump – or indeed any other public figure – by feeding recordings of his speeches into its software and then getting it to tell you what you want that person to say.

“Currently, these algorithms require levels of computing power only available to large technology companies, The Economist said, “but that will change.”

While the consensus is that the production of fake images will take longer, most experts agree that within three years fake YouTube videos will be so professionally produced that it will be next to impossible to prove their veracity.

The serpent is very much alive in the 21st century and is craftily adjusting his game plan to fool modern-day Adam and Eves.

“When he lies, he speaks his native language” Jesus said, “for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Alastair Tancred is the MediaNet’s editor and writer, former broadcast journalist for the BBC and currently foreign reporter for MailOnline.