Have you heard of the term “fake news”? Or better still, do you know anyone who hasn’t heard of it?
In late 2016, the term fake news started gaining traction; strongly related to the presidential election in the United States which saw the rise of fabricated stories and click-bait headlines. The term got so much exposure it was the Collins Dictionary’s 2017 word of the year.
Fake news is technically a result of a convergence of various issues. How did fake news get so out of control? Let us count the ways:
1. Gaming Google’s online ad system
First, there were these teenagers in Macedonia who were releasing made up stories about the U.S. election and its major players. They created about 140 websites peppered with bogus stories about the pope endorsing then U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s alleged email scandal, you get the drift. They took advantage of Google’s advertising platform AdSense which provides payment in exchange for web traffic, and Facebook’s article sharing feature.
Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman explains the phenomenon as follows: “They sign up, for example, for Google AdSense, an ad program, they can get money as people visit their sites and it’s pretty straightforward. So they tried election sites, and over time, they all came to realise that the stuff that did the best was the pro-Trump stuff. They got the most traffic and the most traction.” And in order to generate the traffic, all they did was drop links on Facebook, in Facebook group pages and even used fake accounts.
To learn more about how these youngsters from the small town of Veles in Macedonia ran this operation, see NBC’s feature below:
2. If in doubt, just feature highly partisan political news
Second, articles and websites that were devoted to political propaganda and were funded by actual politicians and their supporters, mushroomed. These were highly partisan and were oftentimes overly critical of the other party or parties. These websites and/or articles were usually the ones the non-English speaking Macedonians chose to feature on their websites.
3. Gaming the algorithms
Google and Facebook’s algorithms also seemed to have fuelled the misinformation. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, in a critique of Facebook, said: “Social media fuelled fake news because content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information.” A concrete illustration of this is the proliferation of memes that were not necessarily true but reinforced existing beliefs or convictions and even incited emotions. Silverman explains: “If you combine information that aligns with [people’s] beliefs, if you can make it something that strikes an emotion in them, then that gets them to react.” In doing so, the algorithms tend to serve up the same content, leading to what is referred to as echo chambers, wherein people only see, read and hear the things that they believe in, and get to interact with the same people who share their beliefs.
4. Using bots and fake social media accounts
There was also the presence of so-called third parties who benefitted or are benefitting from the proliferation of fake news in connection with the U.S. presidential election. Over a week ago, on 16 February, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 13 Russians and three companies for interfering with the U.S. presidential election. According to Deputy Attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein, “the indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.” The New York Times reports that court documents indicate that the Russians were waging an “information warfare against the United States of America” which include creating fake social media accounts, posing as various types of individuals and groups, posting images, pictures, and advertisements and making use of trolls and bots. The New York Times developed this video which explains how trolls and bots were weaponised to influence the U.S. elections:
5. Trump trumpeted the fake news message
In early 2017, it was Trump himself, who popularized fake news. He used it in his tweets and characterized stories critical of him and his administration or those he did not agree with as fake news. “That signaled to the many people out there who were supporting Trump and running websites supportive of him, that he was saying ‘OK, we’re going to take this term and make it ours,’” Silverman explains. This served as an impetus for Trump and his allies to continue drumming up the term. There’s no doubt publicity is Trump’s strength — he was able to transform the meaning of the term fake news so that instead of it being about blatant lies, erroneous or inaccurate data, it was tied to information that was critical of him or information he did not agree with. Like it or not, he was so successful with this publicity tactic, that he even gave out Fake News Awards which were posted on the Republican National Committee website in January this year.
The Impacts of Fake News
It must be noted that while the term fake news became popular in late 2016, it did not necessarily start from there. In fact, the concept has been around for centuries and manifested itself time and again, specifically in political propaganda. Unfortunately, the Internet and social media, according to The Telegraph, “has broken down many of the boundaries that prevented fake news from spreading in democracies. In particular, it has allowed anyone to create and disseminate information, especially those that have proven most adept at ‘gaming’ how social networks operate.” In other words, it is now a lot easier and cheaper to manufacture fake news and distribute it on a large scale if you know how to manipulate human psychology.
The data below from Freedom House indicate an alarming increase in terms of disinformation across countries within a five-year time period, from 2013 to 2017:
What is worrisome is the fact that this fake news phenomenon is currently being exploited to curtail press freedom. In the Philippines, online news site Rappler is currently facing closure after the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked its license to operate. Its reporter, Pia Ranada, was recently barred from entering Malacanang Palace, the official residence and workplace of the President of the Philippines. In Myanmar, two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw She Oo, were charged while reporting on the Rohingya crisis. In Cambodia, two journalists from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia were charged with espionage.
Furthermore, the result of a Stanford University study featuring 7,804 students from middle school through college, showed that 82 percent of teens have difficulty distinguishing an authentic news story from fake news; evidence that there is a huge lack of critical thinking skills in young people. Many were just evaluating the credibility of news stories based on information included in the article and photos attached.
It is clear that combatting fake news and mitigating its impacts is important. But how do we start? What are the current initiatives? What can we do as individuals?
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