Freedom of the False

Feature Article

Fake news online is an unfortunate part of modern politics

It may seem fairly new, but the promotion of misinformation has been around for a long time. In the 19th century, numerous articles published by the New York Sun falsely claimed the discovery of life on the moon, of which came to be known as the “Great Moon Hoax.” This misinformation, or ‘fake news’, has thus been existent for centuries. Yet, it is the sudden surge which has taken place over the last year or so which has given fake news great prominence once again. This time its vehicle is social media and the internet.

It was during the 2016 presidential election campaign in America that fake news really became a hot topic. While it is not entirely clear exactly how much fake news influenced the electorate, it prevalent both during and after the election campaign. Data from Google Trends shows a sharp rise in search queries for the term ‘fake news’ around the time of polling day. There was also a notable spike around the time of President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. It was also around the time when the President infamously labelled the stories surrounding his campaign’s alleged contact with Russia from the political media as “fake news.” The term has appeared not to have escaped political consciousness since. According to a study by Portland and GeoPoll, 90% of Kenyans had come across false stories online in the run-up to the country’s general election in a few weeks time.

Yet while this sort of controversy is not new, it appears that its threat to healthy political discourse and democracy is at an all-time high. This is evidenced by the work being done by several social media platforms to combat such misinformation. This includes Facebook, which earlier this year announced its commitment to doing a better job at tackling fake news. The social media giant worked with organisations such as Full Fact, an independent fact-checking charity in the UK, to limit the spreading of false information during the UK general election for example.

So while there may not be much hard evidence to show that fake news does, in fact, have significant impacts on political events, there has been plenty of swift action taken to tackle its implications. But how exactly does fake news spread and why is it perceived to be such a threat?

Computational Propaganda

While there exist several different technical definitions of the term, fake news can be simply described as purposely fabricated news content. It can range from fallacious headlines to material from satirical websites often mistaken as factual. Unintentional mistakes in reporting or conspiracy theories are commonly thought to be outside the realm of fake news as the motivation to intentionally purport false information is lacking. This also applies to biased news reporting. As Ben Shapiro, a political commentator and writer for The Daily Wire, correctly points out, journalistic bias “may impact how the facts are presented, but they do not automatically discredit the facts presented.”

What has made fake news so prominent in recent times is the platform through which it has mainly been spread, which is social media and the internet. Investigations by BuzzFeed and The Guardian revealed hundreds of sites posting false stories, many of which were run by teenagers. There are a few reasons as to why fake news manages to spread so quickly on social media. To being with, it is now tremendously easy to enter into the media industry via the internet. This is because it is quite straightforward to both set up a website and monetise online content. This is perhaps why amongst the hundreds of fake news websites, a great many of them are set up by teenagers. This then leads to the second reason, which is that social media is well-suited for spreading fake news quickly. The combined active users of both Twitter and Facebook add up to over 2 billion. Moreover, findings from the Pew Research Centre show that 62% of US adults read their news from social media sites, of which 18% do so often. Social media is quickly becoming the main news source for many people, and fake news advocates are making sure they take advantage. According to a study by Oxford University, nearly a quarter of the content shared on Twitter by users in Michigan during the US election campaign was fake news.

But the more specific reason why fake news manages to spread so effectively on social media is more to do with how users interact with the content they see. Researchers from Indiana University, Shanghai Institute of Technology, and Yahoo Research have found that fake news may spread virally online due to the short attention spans of users. This combined with masses of content which is frequently posted on the platforms makes it difficult for users to distinguish between legitimate and fraudulent content. This is especially so with the existence of ‘bots’ which are automated or partially automated social media accounts which consistently upload and post content on a frequent basis. Thus, the more outlandish and eye-catching a headline, the more likely it is to get attention and spread. As such, fake news and other such content can go viral quite rapidly, especially content relating to current events and other hot topics.

The reasons why fake news initiators produce such content appear fairly uncomplicated. Some do it for financial gain since content which does spread widely can attract a fair amount of advertising revenue. Viral false stories can generate tens of thousands of dollars. Others are motivated by ideology. A 24-year-old Romanian man who ran the fake news website endingthefed.com claims that his aim was to aid the Trump campaign during the election.

When fake news does spread it invokes a number of problems. One is the effects it has to political debate. According to Statista, most users believe that fake news causes ‘a great amount of confusion’ about facts relating to current affairs. Thus, it is possible that voters could be misinformed. While politicians may themselves spin facts and stories in a way which advances their campaigns, it is the role of the press to hold them to account and correct them when they may be wrong. But if fake articles are swirling around on social media, which is now becoming a major news source for many voters, this role is severely undermined. Voters then go on to cast votes without having a good knowledge of the facts they ought to know. The other implication is that it also creates unhelpful partisan politics. Users tend to favour and promote articles and news content which best reflects their views. Especially on social media, users can easily create echo chambers which shield them from opposing views. This is made particularly worse since Facebook’s algorithms are tailored to deliver content which is “most interesting to you.” Consequently, political debate becomes painfully unproductive. Those who are more partisan become blind to the merits of the other side and cite articles and other online content which supports whatever narrative they want to create.

Another effect of the rise of fake news is the impact it could have on the reputation of established news outlets. An unhelpful trend which has taken place is the tendency to label any content which may contravene one’s views as fake news. The internet makes it particularly hard to penetrate through the plethora of content with both fraudulent and legitimate news blurred together on social media platforms. Not only may this encourage users to be more sceptical of authentic news outlets, it may also at the same time stimulate demand for more biased, as opposed to more neutral, reporting. Those news outlets who do commit to neutrality may thus get left behind.

While these implications are only theoretical, since there is little evidence that they have materialised, there may still be plenty to worry about. Television still remains an important source for many Americans, according to economists at Stanford University. But as social media grows in popularity and scope, it would hard to ignore the impacts fake news could have politically. It is perhaps only a matter of time before social media does overtake TV as the main news source for voters. If fake news is still around by then, it will be an unfortunate feature of modern society.

Sources:

Gentzkow (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, 1–26

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Zuckerberg ‘Fake News’ Facebook Post (November 2016)

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Fake News and Cyber Propaganda: The Use and Abuse of Social Media

Fake News Stories Are a Problem – But Who’s to Blame?

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If Everybody’s ‘Fake News,’ Whom Do You Believe?

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