At the heart of it, journalism is about evidence, and reporting something may require you to first gather all the pieces in one place, then check them all, then publish your own authentic piece.
Authenticity is a key factor when it comes to quality reporting and most journalists these days rely on digital evidence. Digital evidence includes chats, emails, documents, database servers, and software portals.
Unlike human sources, which involve witnesses considered somewhat responsible and reliable, digital evidence can sometimes be far from reliable.
Mostly due to the nature of how everything works in the online world. Digitization brings anonymity and paves the way for people with vested interests to manipulate things online.
Digital evidence is not just collected, but designed and crafted to look original. This gives it the required believable touch. Where necessary, evidence is backed up with defined narratives and materials to make it look authentic.
Planting or fabricating digital evidence, or simply manipulating evidence like this is called “smart forgery”. Due to clever forgeries, journalists can be tricked into believing false stories and publishing them further.
The most popular smart forgeries include doctored emails sent from a domain name by party A to party B. Since a domain name’s email ids are on a private server, it becomes difficult to check them. This is different from Gmail and Hotmail, which may provide third-party verification.
Additionally, domains are easily bought and sold, allowing the architect to tamper with these emails to create a fake mail server with forged content. This content is then distributed to journalists in the form of screenshots.
Journalists share newly acquired evidence with their known sources and have it verified by an expert in the field. That said, all online digital evidence is designed for peripheral verification, which means that it is only verified at the surface level.
Once a news article with evidence and “sources” is published, it is republished easily without feeling the need to be cross-checked by others. This leads to fake news advertising which can potentially create a lot of damage.