Ruwandi Perera is determined to ‘vaccinate’ the misinformation epidemic

It’s a brand-new year! And here’s hoping that we’ll hear less about the pandemic… and more on economic recoveries, travel, education, work and ‘normal life’!

Even as we hope for better days however, it’s high time to address the far more dangerous plague of fake news and misinformation that are being disseminated online. Experts call it the ‘misinformation apocalypse’ since manipulated news can bring down anyone and anything from presidents, business leaders and corporates, to economies and countries.

The internet is full of it; and as our lives are impacted by the web, it’s quite hard to navigate the digital waves of fake news and malicious gossip.

This manipulation of information is nothing new. In the past, dictators such as Hitler and Stalin were infamously known to have people airbrushed out of photographs when they fell out of favour.

Today, anyone can be a photo or video editor – so fake news is easy to create and even easier to spread. There are websites that allow you to insert any heading of your choice, and then write an entire article complete with fake names and falsified images.

Websites such as show how ‘authentic’ fake photos can seem to be – because they use a special algorithm to generate super realistic images of people who don’t exist.

In the audio domain, we
now have technology to
record a person’s voice and synthesise it to say anything we type in (complete with tonal qualities and character) so that it sounds natural.

There are also AI generated videos showing real or fake people saying and doing things that hackers want them to say or do. If you’ve seen video spoofs of Barack Obama or Kim Jong-un doing or saying things that are unimaginable, chances are that you’ve seen ‘deep fakes.’ Face swaps, lip syncs and puppet masters are three types of deep fakes. Let’s take the case of Lady Gaga – who has been the victim of many deep fakes in real life – as an example.

Face swaps are where you can replace Lady Gaga’s face – with the body of a porn star, for instance. These also allow the creation of a video with the singer’s voice but another person’s face.

Lip sync is where you can have a video of her singing and then replace the mouth with another’s to make it consistent with whatever audio track you opt for – so that she can sing anything in any language.

The most dangerous type of deep fake is perhaps the puppet master. This is where a single static image of Lady Gaga for example, is taken and a puppet master sits in front of a camera, talking and moving. The final video will animate the image of the singer to be in sync with the puppet master’s actions and words.

While these are scary enough, what’s even worse is the speed with which they spread and the large number of people who believe such fabrications. The web is full of lies and unfortunately, people tend to believe misinformation over the truth.

Those who orchestrate the lies do so simply for the fun of it – or more maliciously, to manipulate elections, influence stock market prices, discredit individuals and generate conspiracy theories.

So viewing misinformation like it is an epidemic will help us combat it.

Fake news is like a virus – it’s spread by those who consume (or are consumed by) it. According to multiple studies, web users over 65 have been found to share more fake news than those in younger age groups.

Can we blame technology?

Yes and no! There have always been various types of media – TV, radio, press and of course, online. Yet, today we have the most powerful form of mass communication – social media, which for the first time hands power to ordinary people to produce and share information.

So the real culprits can be those who knowingly or unknowingly encourage and spread false news.

It is up to us to ‘break the fake.’

Correcting family and friends when they spread misinformation on WhatsApp or Facebook, fact checking, taking time to read articles in full before deciding whether they’re true or not, resisting the temptation to respond rapidly to news and being more aware of who we follow online are simple yet effective ways of saving ourselves and the world from the misinformation epidemic.

Misinformation, which is gossip on digital steroids, will always exist and can’t be cured. However, like any epidemic, it can be managed. And remembering that ‘exceptional claims require exceptional evidence’ will go a long way in handling this viral outbreak.

Let 2022 be the beginning of the search for authenticity!