(headline image credit: Homeland “Sock Puppets”)
Mounting criticism for enabling the spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign has pressured Google, Twitter and Facebook and others to get involved in dispelling and discrediting fake stories.
An April 6 Facebook blog outlined three approaches the platform would use to halt the spread of misinformation and false news:
- disrupting economic incentives because most false news is financially motivated;
- building new products to curb the spread of false news; and
- helping people make more informed decisions when they encounter false news.
Like the last bullet point, Google is also tapping into its user base to identify and flag fake news stories. Wired reports, “the company will roll out an expanded feedback form for reporting inappropriate snippets, search results, and autocomplete suggestions.” Additionally, the company has made tweaks to its algorithm to remove or hide blatantly fake stories from appearing at the top if its searches. On some of the more popular conspiracy theories, like 9/11 being an inside job, the platform includes snippets from credible sources debasing some of the wilder claims.
The Guardian reports that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales will create a new community combining journalists with volunteer contributors to combat the fake news problem. The crowdfunded platform, titled Wikitribune, was inspired by Kelly Anne Conway’s remarks about ‘alternative facts’ and will initially be UK-centric.
Twitter is well known for enabling legions of bots to increase the spread and reach of fake news stories, and is used by foreign actors including Russia and ISIS to do the same. Twitter is also used by the President of the United States to share misinformation and doublespeak in an effort to confuse people or shift media attention from the misdeeds of his administration. The platform has been known to ban extremists like Charles Johnson that spread hateful content.
The most intentional and effective disinformation threat comes from foreign governments like Russia, a country with a tight grip over its own broadcast media and a history of using propaganda for dubious means.
The New York Times reports that Russia hosts massive buildings full of government-funded internet trolls that exist solely to sow confusion in democratic societies. Articles from reputable media sources have demonstrated Russia’s strategy to use soft power to influence its political ambitions in regions including: the Baltic states, the Balkans, Britain, Ukraine, The United States, The Netherlands, Sweden, France, Germany and recently fears have grown of interference in Mexico.
Western democracies have been noticeably slow to identify the source of these problems, and most efforts have been anemic. Addressing fake news is challenging in that it comes from multiple sources and for different reasons. Organizations including EU Mythbusters, EU East Stratcom Task Force, NATO Stratcom, and stopfake.org exist to challenge politically-funded fake news organizations directly, but often tackle the exciting headlines and sophisticated efforts of their adversaries with a dull, academic approach. The existing network of fake news capabilities is defeating by comparison.
The Fake News Business
Hostile foreign governments are not the only curators of fake content. Enterprising capitalists from every region of the world and every segment of the political spectrum have learned they can drive users to their websites with salacious, hyperbolic and fanatical (mostly political) headlines and content. Reputable media organizations uncovered how fake news creators were able to use social platforms to spread fictional content to rile up a base of gullible web users, and social media accounts offered the perfect medium to spread these stories. These visits lead to clicks on advertisements leading to a monetary incentive to create more fake news.
Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’:
This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money:
How to Stop the Spread of Fake News
A more concerted effort between Western businesses, governments and academics will strengthen the defense and help nullify the negative effects of misinformation campaigns, but a more proactive effort is needed to keep bad actors from continuing to dilute faith in democracy through propaganda and disinformation.
Sadly, with its current administration lacking all credibility due to countless examples of Russian interference and blatant lies emanating from the executive office, the United States government is not in a position to take a leadership role in this effort. But that doesn’t mean its citizens cannot be informed, and I strongly encourage everyone to explore this topic (using credible sources, of course).
I’ll end this blog with 10 tips Facebook offered to help its users identify fake news in their feeds. This list can be applicable to most media sources.
- Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
- Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.
- Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.
- Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
- Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
- Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
- Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
- Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
- Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
- Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.
For more in-depth guidelines visit this piece from Elia Powers, PHD.