Fighting Fake News
Fake news has been in headlines since the 2016 election, which it is widely agreed to have impacted.
Fake news certainly exists. As long as you believe there is such a thing as objective truth, you can believe that there are objective falsehoods. When such falsehoods are deliberately, knowingly, and intentionally presented as truth, that qualifies as fake news.
However, labeling something “fake news” has become a favored diversion tactic—a trick to discredit news without even attempting to prove that it’s factually incorrect. Translation: it’s simply news that the labeler doesn’t like.
While it’s not a new phenomenon – read this article from Smithsonian if you doubt it—the digital age has compounded the problem exponentially.
Digital Age Makes Spreading Information Too Easy
Never before have people been able to create false information so effectively, present it with such legitimacy, and share it with such speed and breadth. Doctoring a photo, re-labeling and reframing a video, attributing a false news story to a legitimate journalistic source, building imposter news sites which replicate trusted brands: these are all part of the problem.
With such glaring problems and potentially catastrophic effects, it’s no surprise there’s increasing debate about how to combat it, and who is responsible for doing so.
For example, on April 1 the Washington Post published an op-ed by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook: The Internet Needs New Rules: Let’s Start in These Four Areas.
Part of the debate revolves around the question of whether SM platforms like FB have shifted to a role like that of a public square or a public utility, and consequentially requiring the kind of protections and monitoring other public spaces or utilities merit. Further debate erupts around who should take this responsibility. Should social media companies police themselves? Should government impose regulations? Does the protection of public safety trump the sanctity of free speech? These aren’t new questions; they’ve just expanded into a new arena.
Media Giants Are Taking Some Steps
Social Industry Today, an industry publication, shares some efforts by media giants:
They have done a lot – Facebook, for example, has introduced third-party fact-checking, new labels and requirements for ‘issues’ ads and political candidates, user ratings to better sort false news reports, and – one of the most helpful tools – Page info and ad insights, which let users know things like where the Page’s managers are located, and what other names the Page might have had.
Twitter, too, has ramped up its efforts, implementing new API restrictions to limit mass actions (like following and interacting with tweets) and introducing its own badges and tools to provide more transparency around political content. Twitter has also been removing bots and fake profiles at a higher rate than ever.
They also offer this sobering analysis:
According to a new report from Knight Foundation a huge amount of fake news activity is still present on Twitter… More than 80% of accounts that repeatedly spread misinformation during the 2016 election campaign are still active, and they continue to publish more than a million tweets on a typical day.
That’s a lot – last year, UK researchers uncovered huge bot networks operating via tweet, with clusters of up to 500,000 accounts that operated in coordinated action to undertake sharing and engagement processes. Have they been removed? While Twitter, as highlighted in the above stats, has been stopping more accounts from signing-up, could it be that existing bot networks like this are still active?
The bottom line is that we need to be as discerning about passing on unverified information as we would be about spreading ugly news about a friend. It’s irresponsible to share information without verifying it.
We Have the Tools to Be More Responsible Digital Consumers
The good news is that the same tools which make spreading fake news so easy are also tools which enable us to verify information. Run an internet search. If the topic doesn’t appear in legitimate news sources, don’t leap to the conclusion that it’s being suppressed as part of a conspiracy. Maybe it didn’t actually happen. Learn to search images and pictures as well as text. Vet a few news sources and establish your own short-list of legitimate news providers you can trust. Search for “how to verify news on social media” and read a few articles.
The more potentially divisive a piece of news is, the more it should invite skepticism, because that’s the modus operandi of the fake news industry. It’s the highly emotional, highly divisive content which explodes virally, which means more eyes, more clicks, more sharing, and more money for certain entities.
In this digital age, we all need to take responsibility for our own digital literacy. Read, think and research before you click.