top of page

A Brief History of The "DeepFakes"

Veles is one small Eastern European town in Macedonia. In the months leading up to the US presidential election in 2016, enterprising teenagers in Macedonia built a cottage industry of fake news sites that concocted phony scoops about President Obama and Hillary Clinton and then collected the ad revenue when they went viral among Trump supporters.

These young people in Macedonia were pumping out fake stories on the Facebook. They had headlines like "Pope Francis shocks world, Endorses Donald Trump" and "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide". But make no mistake. These teenagers were not at all interested in US politics, they just wanted Facebook advertising money. Eventually, stories about American Politics, particularly about Trump and Hillary, went viral. This was beginning of the internet friendly-life of the term- 'Fake News'.

So, how did the phrase- 'Fake News' evolve and what does it mean?

Misinformation, spin, lies and deceit have been around forever. But the unique part of today's misinformation is the marriage between social media algorithms, partisans news agencies, advertising systems, people prepared to make stuff up to earn some easy cash and an election that grips a nation and much of the world.

I prefer to call it 'deepfakes'

To put simply, misinformation with a malicious purpose spread through any communication mediums can be termed as Fake News. If you just choose to google, the 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.

'Fake News' comes in a combo pack. Misinformation, spin, conspiracy theories, mistakes, and reporting that people just don't like - all are rolled into it.

How dangerous is 'Fake News'?

Fake news has real-world consequences and it's not just about politics or partisanship but the lives of ordinary people, just trying to go about their days, are at risk.

Let's take an instance from Assam. Rumours on social media about the presence of child kidnappers were spread in Dokmoka in West Karbi Anglong district. The two men in their 30s- Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were headed for Kangthilangso, about 10 kilometres from Dengaon, which is known for its scenic waterfalls. The locals suspected Abhijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das to be kidnappers and attacked them. They were pulled out of their car, kicked, punched, dragged and beaten with sticks. When the two men tried to escape, they were tied up and brutally assaulted. Both the men bled to death on their way to the hospital. The onlookers kept making videos of the incident and didn't believe Abhijeet and Nilotpla when they pleaded and spoke truth that they were Assamese and tourists.

The making of a 'Fake News'

It does not take 'super-skill' other than copying and pasting, at its basics, to create fake news and spread it. All it takes is the basic technological knowledge, a tech tool, an artificial intelligence, a malicious intention and a social media account to create fake news and fabricate truth that are so true to life that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the video is real.

Who consumes 'Fake News'

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that fake news is consumed by those with little education; it would itself be, well, "fake news" to believe so. Highly-educated people too can be duped by lies as well - and can often be even more stubborn when presented with information that challenges their views. Moreover, it's our belief, convictions, ideologies, theories and thought processes which decide what content we consume. If a news/content, fake or not, aligns with our thoughts and beliefs, it does not matter whether the content is fake or fact. When aligned with ones's belief, even a fake news is no longer a stream of falsehood but it is eagerly swallowed by people, illiterate and literate.

So, 'Fake News' like a disease or epidemic is neutral. All eat it. All are killed by it.

The Democratization of 'Fake News'

It's not just a few IT Cell men and women who are creating the 'Fake News', the most disturbing thing is when people occupying constitutional positions share and endorse fake news giving legit backing to a lie which is misconceived, misplaced and a misleading political propaganda.

For instance, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a series of claims throughout his term in office, many of which turned out to be either untrue or partially true. All of his lies are copied, pasted and then packaged under catchy news headlines and shared on social media networks on a very unprecedented scale for audience hungry for Modi's news.

This democratization is scary. Because it legitimizes and eventually normalizes the phenomenon of 'Fake News'.

The information Polarization

People tend to prefer congenial information, including political news, when given to choose. The ideological slant affects the content people choose to consume. Research in political science and psychology has documented that misperceptions are often systematically related to people’s political identities and predispositions (Flynn, Nyhan, and Reifler, 2017).

The Selective Exposure

People deferentially consume false information that reinforces their political views. The extensive social media usage exacerbates tendencies toward selective exposure to misinformation (Andrew, Brendan, Jason, 2018).

President Obama, in his interview with Prince Harry, says and I quote, “One of the dangers of our time, is that people can have entirely different realities because of the technology and internet we have. They can be just cocooned in the information that reinforces their current biases. Because on internet, everything is simplified but when you meet people face to face, it turns out that they’re complicated. Ther may be some who are diametrically opposite to you in terms of your political views but both of you work for the same sports team.”

"Because on internet, everything is simplified but when you meet people face to face, it turns out that they’re complicated."

Precisely, this is the selective exposure on so-called 'free internet' that President Obama is talking about.

Can 'Fake News' be weaponized?

Yes, by all means. You can call this an exaggerated fear. But it's not far from reality. These are polarizing times. Additionally, the infinite lies, streams of misinformation and doublespeak of our politicians simply and greatly add to this monstrous fire. They are the greatest vulnerable means and ends, both, that can turn 'Fake News' into a weapon.

Are we ready to fight 'Fake News'?

Like it or not, we are ill-equipped. The most obvious solution to fight fake news may be the use of technology but it's not the only thing we need. Because 'Fake News' is not just a technological epidemic but, in its essence, it's human crisis and you can not have technological fixes alone to solve a humanitarian crisis. You can fix the computer, or social media tools with technology but how would you fix a mind with technology?

It's also a continuous fight between 'the good' and 'the evil' (for lack of better terms, let's use these terms). The evil creates and the good detects. The evil mends mistakes and creates more detective proof lies. The detective again detects. This cycle goes on and on. It's this cycle that needs to be shaken and broken and only humane solutions can do that. Tech is just the means, just the instruments of the evil.

The Solution:

The solution lies with the people, every single of us. We can defuse this 'Fake News' bomb. all we need is little sincerity, a little understanding of human values and some technical fixes which are:

1. Check on Facilitating Agencies:

Social Media Networks, in particular, Facebook and WhatsApp are the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of 'Fake News'. These agencies need to develop and innovate tools and software that to a great extent stop the spread of fake news.

2. Strengthening Fact-Checking Mechanism

The absence of a fact-checking mechanism on social media network and by journalists and media establishments has given walk-over to the wild and humongous rise of 'Fake News'. If we can develop a fact checking mechanism that helps people find fishy claims and get access to the statistics faster, we can make real progress on fighting fake news. This can be combined with our effort to effectively reach consumers of fake news too.

3. Democratize your space on social media and in real world

Going back to what President Obama pointed out, we need to connect to people of all views, however conflicting, on social media and not just create a network of convenience and comfort. In an increasingly virtual world, we need to do this. Similarly, we need to accommodate and be inclusive of people with diverse thoughts and beliefs in our offices, neighborhood, our cities and villages.

4. Media Literacy:

We should be able to teach out children in schools about differentiating between the fact and fake. Some of the schools across Europe and in UK already teach their children to fact check and question the source of information.

5. Voters' Literacy Program:

The democracies across the world are most hit by fake news and is the most vulnerable target of the 'Fake News'. Ergo, educating our voters about manifestos, political promises and claims, candidates' or representatives's background and ideologies to make an informed decision is vital.

6. Categorize the news

For a better understanding of issues and fact, journalists/media houses can publish news under categories like facts, speculation, opinions, and outright fiction by demarcating the differences between them.

While these are the action items for us to do, the most important thing to do is the same stubborn but essential work: Find a human way. And we shall overcome this.


bottom of page