December 2, 2019

How Cyber Forensic Can Help Battle Fake News

by Danka Mihajlovic

It is the fact that made-up “facts” existed long before the internet. Still, the reason why the term fake news became so infamous recently lies in the fact that the internet and the technology behind it enabled super-fast dissemination of all kinds of disinformation - from doctored photos and videos to hoaxes and deliberate lies.

Fraudsters just love the online environment in which they can reach a large number of people all over the world with a little effort. They are counting on the dark side of human nature - the tendency to pick only those bits of data that confirm one’s preexisting beliefs.

Fake news can prove harmless, but most of the time they are not. When information about the sudden death of  21-year old Ethereum’s founder Vitalik Buterin became viral in 2017 it dropped the value of the world’s second most valuable cryptocurrency by $4 billion. When it turned out to be just another fake news, it seemed that the damage was already done.

Recent researches confirmed long suspected rumours. Both Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election and the success of anti-Brexit movement have a lot in common with the rise of disinformation online. As the time for the new US election approaches, so does the rising concern on this topic.

From the last elections, it seems that a lot of internet users managed to recognize and ignore basic manipulations. Also, a list of free online tools that are used for debunking fake contents gets longer every day. Yet, the problem stays persistent as new ways of online content manipulation are flourishing and the hoaxers become more subtle and cautious.

Focus: Where do all those dubious websites lead to?

Fortunately, even though every internet user should bear responsibility for its shared content, the users aren’t alone in this process. A growing number of fact-checking outlets and NGOs that aim to counter the spread of misinformation shows that they take the problem seriously. The last example comes from international NGO EU Disinfo Lab which discovered 265 coordinated fake local media outlets in more than 65 countries that serve Indian governmental interests. This huge debunk story would take ages to do only manually.

Debunking big disinformation campaigns is a time-consuming process. It also requires a lot of trained staff and the tools that automate debunking operations. Time plays an important role in this process because if debunking comes too late, the damage may already be irreparable. Spotting the fake story or media outlet at its very beginning means preventing those stories to go viral or gain attention.

New solutions: Find what others try to hide

It is already a common practice among investigative journalists, activists and social media watchdogs to use all kinds of available tools to collect evidence of coordination between various domains which are claiming to be independent while trying to hide its origin. However, it is not always easy to prove that such connections exist, even when there is reasonable suspicion.

Abstract can be of great help in finding evidence of a connection between dubious websites and other online resources. Online activities often leave some kind of traces which online actors aren’t always aware of. Abstract conducts an investigation on its own throughout various online layers and brings back human-readable format that binds a wide range of information into sensible and usable data.

This tool won’t be of great help when investigating if one particular story, picture or video is fake. However, it can be of invaluable benefit to journalists when discovering the whole network of fake, fraudulent or scam websites. Instead of searching for a needle in a haystack, cyber forensic tools can help you build the whole haystack made of needles.

On this task, Abstract and investigative journalist share the same aim - to find what others are trying to hide.