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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

How fake BBC news is being used to manipulate tension in the Gulf

The BBC brand has fallen victim to forces of misinformation, the World Service chief said

Jamie Angus, Director of BBC World Service Group, said the BBC has a responsibility to expose fake news in the Gulf and to reassure the public that the BBC is a trusted source Victor Besa / The National 
Jamie Angus, Director of BBC World Service Group, said the BBC has a responsibility to expose fake news in the Gulf and to reassure the public that the BBC is a trusted source Victor Besa / The National 

The BBC is the latest international media organisation to take the lead in the global fight against fake news after repeated attacks from online fraudsters and propagandists.

While some claim fake news to be little more than mischief or clickbait opportunists seeking financial gain, other articles from questionable sources carry a more sinister intent.

The Middle East is regarded as prime territory to cause further division and increase tension. State-sponsored fake news is helping to widen fissures but the BBC World Service is offering new measures to help to identify falsehoods.

Jamie Angus, director of the BBC World Service Group, was appointed to the role this year, and said the fake news phenomenon was aimed at regions with questionable election coverage and political issues. “In many parts of the world the proliferation of fake news is having a detrimental effect on people’s lives, their livelihoods and around national security,” Mr Angus said.

“It is being used as a political tool to manipulate populations that are under tension, and we are certainly seeing that in the Gulf where there is a certain manipulation of existing tension between states and countries.”

As a trusted source of news, brand BBC is being manipulated by unknown online fraudsters who use the logo to pass off their information as genuine.

Reality Check

Reality Check is a BBC tool to help the public understand the wider context behind news stories, explaining the why as well as the what.

Weapons of Mass Deception is a documentary due to appear on BBC Arabic and BBC World News, revealing truths behind the latest fake news stories circulating in the Gulf.

But the rise of fake news may not be all bad news for the established media industry as people become more educated and sceptical about what they read online, and return to trusted sources.

“There is a tendency to use fake news in hybrid warfare against certain states,” Mr Angus said. “That is a problem, and one the BBC is taking seriously.

“For mainstream news organisations there is a challenge but in a climate of suspicion people tend to return to their trusted sources of news.

“Tech platforms that were once just a tool to connect people have now taken on the role of publishers, so they are now obliged by regulators in international markets to account for themselves.

“We know many are investing heavily in online journalism, with specialists tasked with identifying and taking down fake news.”

Google has pledged more than US$300 million (Dh11.01bn) to combat fake news and Facebook is taking a similar approach.

The BBC is well placed to pick out emerging trends and tendencies, operating in 41 different languages and with a comprehensive Arabic service.

Not the 9 o'clock news

This year, a fictional video reporting outbreak of thermonuclear war featuring BBC news branding was widely circulated. Although false, many worried viewers contacted the BBC, believing it to be genuine.

The video was advertised as fake on YouTube by the short film’s creators but the warning was omitted once it had been circulated on WhatsApp.

In the film, a newsreader announces a “serious incident between Russia and Nato” and that the British royal family had been moved to a secure location.

Seemingly filmed in the familiar surroundings of a BBC newsroom, many watchers believed the report, in which Russian warships had apparently returned fire on Nato targets and an emergency broadcast advised people to return home as thermonuclear war was pending.

The newsreader said that the German city of Mainz and part of Frankfurt had already been destroyed.

“We see ourselves as having a role in calling out fake news in this region and to reassure the public that the BBC is a trusted source,” Mr Angus said.

“Propaganda and state-backed misinformation is something that has always been with us. It is not a new phenomenon but the rise of digital publishing and the information available on social media has made it that much more acute.

“People are manipulating the BBC brand, in both sound and appearance, which includes mocking up the logo and putting it on fake news stories. If a fake news article appears on a major platform we can very often get it taken down fairly swiftly.

“Fake news that circulates on chat apps can spread very quickly and it is harder to remove.”

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Read more:

The fall of Cambridge Analytica speaks to the enduring power of traditional media

Anti-fake news banners to appear on UAE Facebook accounts

Tech firms committed to fight back in war on 'fake news'

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The video had been made with good intentions, created by a production company as a psychometric test for their clients to test reactions in disaster situations. Actor Mark Ryes told the BBC he had no part in editing, performing his role in front of a green screen.

Once reported, it was soon removed by YouTube but had already been circulated widely on social chat apps, without the guidance notice that it wasn’t real.

False reports on chat platforms are harder to remove because they can circulate quickly and are not searchable or discoverable, so they often go undetected.

The BBC issued a clarification report on the bogus video after it had been shared across Africa and Asia.

“We’ve spoken a lot on the role of Russia in promoting the rise of fake news, and that tells you how inter-connected the world has become in its news media,” Mr Angus said.

“States can often have an interest in a regional dispute thousands of miles away, so everyone has to be careful of what they click, consume and share among their friends.”