It is two and a half minutes to midnight. Through 2015 and 2016, the hands of the Doomsday Clock, the universally accepted indicator of how safe the world is, had stood at three minutes to midnight — the moment signifying the certainty that the human race would annihilate itself. This year, the clock has been advanced by 30 seconds on an unprecedented fear — that of fake news.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which maintains the clock, has been concerned in particular about an incident last December, in which Pakistan foreign minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif rattled his nuclear sabre at Israel in response to the fake news that it had threatened a nuclear strike if Islamabad sent troops to Syria. The voluble minister was chastised by his government, but the damage had been done: he had demonstrated that fake news could conceivably trigger conflict.
The statement of the Bulletin also highlights the unquantifiable consequences of artificial intelligence and cybernetics, which have also been headlined this year by professionals who know their onions — Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates. In more sensible times, the Bulletin’s statement explaining the time told by the Doomsday Clock used to serve as a class to action, igniting global debates on human security. But today, it appears that we do not want to think too much about news, good or bad.
In the current issue of the Bulletin, Hugh Gusterson of George Washington University delivers a blistering critique of the Washington Post, for allowing its July 8 number to be swamped with G20 news, to the extent that it buried in its digest a report on 122 nations signing on the first ever treaty to ban nuclear weapons. While this will prove impossible to implement, it is nevertheless a powerful statement reflecting what the other half thinks of the nuclear powers. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was presented as a trade-off.
The haves committed to scale down and eventually eliminate arsenals and tests if the have-nots committed not to acquire weapons. Since the treaty process will turn 50 next year without any reduction in perceptions of threat, the have-nots naturally feel cheated. The UN treaty which reflects their protest made the news in India, but not in the nations which had armed the world. The lack of interest is odd, since the world has not been this close to self-destruction since the 80s, when a global chill descended over Operation Able Archer in Europe and Minuteman and SS-4 ballistic missiles squared off against each.
Bullatomsci, as the magazine is fondly known, was founded by Manhattan Project scientists, to educate the public about their creation and seek a ban on it. It has been in print since the 1940s, driven to a great extent by an affrighted public’s need to know in the Atomic Age. Too bad it isn’t as widely read now, when the world is much less safe. When the Doomsday Clock was launched on its cover, the hands stood at seven minutes to midnight. Now, it is four and a half minutes closer.
Indeed, a lot of material which should be of public interest appears in the non-technical scientific press, but does not make it to the big papers and agencies. For instance, the latest issue of Science magazine reports a study of British media by the University of Surrey, which suggests that prejudice lingers on in newsrooms. They have contrasted coverage of British East Asian and East Asian students — that’s mostly Indian and Chinese.
The latter get a good press because they bring in the moolah, generally paying more than British students. And when they are done paying, they generally go away, leaving Avalon unsullied. East Asians who are British citizens, on the other hand, seem to feature mostly in the press for reverse racism — giving white people a hard time.
But to return to fake news, in a polite but cutting put-down to Republic TV and Times Now, Alt News has published an excellent video tutorial on how to sift real pictures from fakes in WhatsApp. It will help members of the public who are sensitive to online fakery, and television anchors who should be. On July 18, Republic TV and Times Now ran images of Rahul Gandhi amidst some Chinese people, referring to the image as “undated” and “unverified”, respectively. Appearing during the Doklam standoff, they appeared to be pregnant with political meaning. Alt News tracked down the original, a picture taken at the Chinese food festival at the Taj Palace Hotel. It then googled the guest list, and discovered a picture of Suresh Prabhu addressing the same gathering, among invitees from other political parties. Now we know how it’s done. But the question is, why didn’t the Congress party’s cyberwarriors know? Or were they just too exhausted to put out the real story?