Tuesday 10 January 2017

The Rise Of Fake News

fake news

Increased internet use has seen the growth of news items that purport to be true, but aren’t. What motivates the tricksters, and is the trend here to stay? Simon Wilson reports.

Why is fake news in the news?

Fabricated news stories are hardly new (see below). However, concerns about the impact of such stories have taken on a new urgency in the internet era. Digital technology has led to a boom in online “fake news” that is harder – in the context of a headline on a Facebook feed, say – to distinguish from the “real” thing, and is perceived by some to have affected the US election campaign.

During the 20th century, partisan reporting never went away, of course. But in broad terms there was a backlash against sensationalism and a rising demand for relatively objective newspaper journalism that served and underpinned the spread of democratic enfranchisement. That model is now in flux, with the decline of print media and the rise of online media – Facebook and Google in particular – as many people’s primary access point for news.

Is “fake news” obviously fake?

The term is contentious – one certainty is that we can expect the accusation of “fake news” to be thrown about as a smear by those who simply disagree with a writer’s take on a specific set of underlying facts. However, some stories are just untrue – “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide” and “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump for President, Releases Statement”, for example. These stories, says BuzzFeed, were the two biggest fake political news stories on Facebook in 2016.

<>The first, which originated on a fake news site (ABCNews.com.co), was shared, commented on, or reacted to (p“liked”, etc) on Facebook 2,177,000 times, making it the most popular fake news story of the year. Other pro-Trump, anti-Democrat stories circulating last year included the claim that a Democrat official was murdered after agreeing to testify against Hillary Clinton (he wasn’t) and that Islamic State’s leader had called on voters to back Clinton (he hadn’t).

Do people believe this stuff?

It’s impossible to judge how many people who “engaged” with these false stories believed them to be true – let alone to assess whether they influenced the election’s outcome in Trump’s favour. Even so, one instant survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs and BuzzFeed News found that fake news headlines about the presidential election fooled American adults about 75% of the time.

What is to be done?

Both Facebook and Google have long resisted seeing themselves as media companies or publishers responsible for the content on their platforms. In the days after Trump’s victory, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s initial reaction was that it was a “pretty crazy idea” that false news stories – facilitated by Facebook – had influenced the result. He says that only 1% of news circulating on the site is fake, and that it is not Facebook’s job to be an “arbiter of truth”.

However, in the face of pressure (not least from its own staff, according to reports), Zuckerberg has since said that he wants to “disrupt the economics” of fake news. Facebook is now working on seven proposals to combat misinformation more robustly, including methods for stronger detection and verification, and providing warning labels (“Disputed”) on fake content – in partnership with external fact-checkers. These are the sorts of quality control measures once typical in print media that have in many cases fallen victim to “cuts” and the rush to grab audience share and online advertising revenues.

Why do people write these stories?

Political partisanship is one motivation, but for many creators and spreaders of fake news, it boils down to money. Put simply, the more popular an article is – the more “hits” or “clicks” it generates – the more advertising revenue it can accrue. Better yet, notes BuzzFeed, “a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US”.

As a result, it’s proved worthwhile for tech-savvy young entrepreneurs in poorer parts of the world – notably eastern Europe – to harvest that revenue in any effective way they can. A bad-tempered US election, with even more partisan mudslinging than usual, provided plenty of opportunity to create titillating content likely to go viral (ie, be shared widely), regardless of its providence.

Such as?

Beqa Latsabidze, 22, a computer science student in Tbilisi, Georgia, was behind the “Departed.co” website, a popular source of pro-Trump, anti-Democrat fake news that’s since disappeared, reports The New York Times. Latsabidze had tried his luck with pro-Clinton and pro-Sanders sites, but they didn’t draw enough traffic – and hence advertising revenue – so he tried his luck with Trump.

And in the town of Veles in Macedonia, teenagers running fake news websites have been making thousands of dollars a month, according to BuzzFeed, which traced more than 100 pro-Trump websites back to the town. They too are motivated by clicks, rather than votes – and are looking forward to the French and German elections this year.

A brief history of false news

The deliberate spreading of false stories for political purposes has been around for centuries. Even before the invention of the printing press in 1493, for example, faked stories perpetuating the “blood libel”, that Jews had murdered Christian children to drink their blood had been circulating for about 300 years, according to historians. In the 16th century, leaked state reports, such as the Venetian government’s relazioni, were seen as reliable sources of news – sparking a cottage industry in faked relazioni.

And, as Jacob Soll notes in Politico, in the US, “even our glorified Founders were perpetrators of fake news for political means”. To whip up revolutionary fervour, even Benjamin Franklin – widely seen as a model of integrity and American virtue – concocted fake stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with King George III.

*** Based On Money Week



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