Fake News - all about who controls the truth

last update: 19 Nov. 2019

For some more up-to-date information and comments you can also check out my
Brain’ on the topic.

Here are a few recent references that should one day be integrated into this text:

Shadow Politics: meet the digital sleuth exposing fake news
Four major tech companies take new steps to combat fake news
Fake News: Public Policy Responses
Clickbait culture and groupthink mentality have led to the collapse of journalism - and the rise of Donald Trump
Group thinking helps fake news spread
Inside The Ecosystem That Fuels Amazon's Fake Review Problem
Fake Five-Star Reviews being Bought and Sold Online

Facebook details scale of abuse on its site, BBC News, 15 May 2018

It would appear that Facebook employs 15,000 human moderators, but that its algorithms struggle to spot some types of abuse. Apparently they detect 99.5% of terrorist propaganda, but only 38% of hate speech. Facebook also said it had in a 3 month period taken down 583 million fake accounts.

Introduction - the 'Lügenpresse'

Fake News is anything from yellow journalism (just eye-catching headlines), to propaganda (Including both white and black propaganda), through deliberate misinformation (disinformation), hoaxes, rumours, pseudoscience, smear campaigns and media manipulation (and the nice sounding perception management), and is part of the broader issue of political warfare. We even have now the term post-truth politics in which facts and expert opinion are set aside in the public debate in favour of emotions over reality, and we should never forget that some fake news is just someone else’s ‘alternative facts’.

Fake News Websites have become the preferred tool because it is easier to use social media to rapidly amplify the effect of a fake news item. Fake News is not limited to text and pictures, tests have shown that it is possible to change what someone is saying in a video.

Here are a few US-based fake news sites that don’t totally hide the fact that the news could be fake: DC Gazette, World News Daily Report, and National Report.

Fact Checking Websites are also active in checking factual assertions, and a new craft has appeared called ‘data journalism’.

Media Bias/Fact Check claims to be the most comprehensive media bias resource.
Snopes claims to be the oldest and largest fact-checking site on the Internet.
FactCheck has a focus on deception and confusion in US politics.
TruthOrFiction looks everything from fake virus warnings to fake inspirational stories.
Hoax-Slayer looks at email and social media hoaxes.

Other reliable institutions and organisations try to provide additional guidance on fact checking and accountable journalism, e.g. American Press Institute, Google’s Fact Check Tag, Full Fact, and the Truth-O-Meter of PolitiFact. The 2016 report ‘The Rise of Fact-Checking Sites in Europe’ provides a complete overview for Europe, as well as a useful world view.

Duke Reporters’ Lab has a particular focus on fact checking, and lists fact-checking sites around the world.

Automatic fact checking is on the wish list of all the major media and Web companies (Twitter, Google, FaceBook, etc.), and this report suggests that much more can be done with existing technology.

Fake News - "the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than that need to produce it"

Who’s paying for these ‘reports' on BBC Brexit coverage? is an article from openDemocracyUK (a 'global media platform'). The premise in the article was that the BBC was being attacked as anti-Brexit by what looked to be independent and impartial studies. However all the research data appeared to be produced by a small explicitly anti-EU company funded by ‘black money’ from pro-Brexit sources. The implication was that those studies were in fact not independent and impartial, and that fake news was being created to support the pro-Leave lobby and undermine the role of the BBC. I suppose the message was that we are now firmly in the ‘fake news’ era, and that media literacy and information literacy are now a crucial new skills we all need to learn (including in school). What happens if we don't learn these new skills?

Content Farms

A related topic is
Content Farms. Today we know that every sector of the economy will consider going overseas if it costs less. ‘Server farms’ can be installed almost anywhere in the world, and now the same thing is happening with ‘content farms’. They can be found in the Philippines, Pakistan, Georgia, Croatia, India and Macedonia providing information (sometimes false) on almost everything. This article (28.09.2017) noted that an US-based site on Native Americans has closed, yet thenativepeoples ran out of Kosovo had more than 500,000 fans, and IndigenousPeopleOfAmericans run out of Vietnam has more than 1 million fans (both appeared to have disappeared from Facebook). The sites welcomenative and usnewtoday (I suppose a bit of a play against US News and USA Today) were also run by the same person in Vietnam (both also have disappeared from Facebook). For more information checkout ExploitingTheNiche (still on Facebook). A recent BuzzFeed News analysis of partisan political news websites and Facebook pages revealed that a page run by a 20-year-old in Macedonia outperformed many of the biggest conservative news Facebook pages run by Americans. BuzzFeed News also found publishers in Kosovo and Georgia that publish (often fake) news crafted for American conservatives. A whole range of health-oriented sites targeting Americans are run out of Pakistan, and others are run out of Macedonia. One example was of an American ‘liberal troll’ who produced fake news ‘to expose the ignorance of American conservatives’. But then found that his fake content was actually being copied and re-used as ‘true’ news by a multitude of sites all over the world.

The idea to create content that people will share on social networks is not in itself a bad thing. The sharing of that content will bring traffic back to the original publisher so that it can be monetised with AdSense banners, etc. And some perfectly honest publishers are also using cheap labour around the world to produce content, and admitted that fact checking has become an ‘outmoded luxury’.

But one specific feature of this problem is ‘click baiting, which is the use of eye-catching headlines, or stories clipped from other sites (plagiarism), or fake information (sometimes presented as satire), to attract visitors and sell advertising. This may be associated with ‘spambots’ targeting specific communities on sites such as Facebook and designed to promote the ‘click baiting’ sites.

Fact Checking - an outmoded luxury?

The reality is that fact checking has always been an important aspect of professional journalism, but now it has moved to the front page (from ‘researcher' to ‘fact checker’). Getting the story right, avoiding bias and partisan ideologies, and using credible sources have always been important. As has the need to quickly issue corrections and avoid making problems worse. This means taking a bit more time to check facts, avoiding fringe sources, and do everything to avoid false claims.

Intentional misinformation usually is the most effective in the minds of the target when money is concerned, and when it actually reflects sincere beliefs in the target population. People are more receptive to sources that share a targets social values, or those that provide unexpected information that supports their views. It is often difficult to counter misinformation, and a simple negation often does not work. If the incorrect statement is that Mr. X was a thief, then a negation such as Mr. X is not a thief, will actually make it easier to remember the original incorrect accusation. Intentional misinformation often looks for situations where there is a void of responsibility or control (it fills a space in both the information landscape and in the mind of the target population). However, the idea that misinformation is successful only with people who are not aware of critical facts is wrong. Providing additional information and facts does not automatically change peoples opinions. However, oddly enough opinions can be changed with coherent information and data about money, e.g. spending, budgets, funding, etc., on things such as police, foreign aid, tax revenues. But the effect is not consistent and predictable. Some experts point to the fact that there is a difference between fact and truth, and many people are prepared to believe ‘alternative facts’ that are, in fact, nuanced functions of perspective, expectation, and levels of understanding.

The reality is that misinformation has been around forever. Did Bush assist the 9/11 attacks? Was Obama born in the US? Tax cuts don’t affect US federal revenues! Vaccines are dangerous! All are misperceptions that have proven to be almost impossible to refute. Often this type of misinformation, intentional or not, actually targets people that are uninformed about a particular situation. Once ‘informed’ they are not prepared to change easily their views.

You will have guessed that we have little data on how effective ‘alternative facts’ are. Does fake news convince voters to change their opinions? Is fact checking an effective check against fake news? It looks as if fake news can be highly persuasive, and fact checking does little to undo the effects of fake news. There is plenty of evidence that being only exposed to official facts, on the one hand can increase support for alternative facts, and yet at the same time can move posterior opinions towards the truth. In fact it was recently reported that fact checking in general may be unsuccessful at reducing misperceptions, especially among the people most prone to believe them. People often ignore facts that contradict their current belief’s, particularly in politics and controversial social issues.

I was surprised by the complexity of this topic, and I’m not sure I’ve done it justice. I think a major review and rewrite will be needed in the coming months.

It is worth underlining another aspect of fake news. Fake news can sometimes be benign, yet at other times can influence elections, defame character, incite unrest, and propagate fear. It has always existed, but digital media has given it momentum and reach like never before. If we think fake news is scary, then we should spare a moment to think about false teaching. The religious equivalent to journalistic misinformation commits the same kinds of deception with much more at stake.