It has been discovered that in the 1980s, Donald Trump ran a drug cartel where his main rival was Pablo Escobar, who had attempted to kill Donald Trump multiple times. However, Trump was too cunning for Escobar and managed to escape and make a fortune from his drug cartel business without anyone discovering where his real fortune came from until now… of course this is not true, but someone, somewhere may believe this just because we said it. This is an example of fake news at work.
Since Donald Trump accused CNN’s Jim Accosta of ‘being fake news’ at his first press conference, discussions around it have exploded. But fake news is not new. It has been used since the Roman Times where Octavian used a campaign of misinformation to help win his victory over Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republican.
Talking of victories, it’s widely believed the spread of fake news contributed to Trump being elected and criticism has been directed towards Facebook, something founder Mark Zuckerberg denies. He says 99% of the news feed is authentic and that the platform was responsible for two million people actually registering to vote.
So how can we spot fake news? It has two different forms.
The purest form :
The purest form, ironically, is deliberate fake news that has been created to manipulate people into believing it is credible journalism. Its goal is to attract maximum attention, manipulate opinions or make money from it. Last year, there were reports that Hilary Clinton was running a child sex ring from a Washington pizzeria. It might seem far-fetched but the allegations were taken so seriously by one man that he stormed the restaurant armed with a gun. Surely this was one man’s unhinged reaction to something so obviously fake? Not necessarily. A US poll found 14% of Trump supporters believed the story.
The innocent is fake news that has been mistaken as real news or exaggerated along the way – Chinese whispers, you may call it. For example, did a Malaysian fireman marry a snake? Of course! Not really… the story grew from local media to international news, changing dramatically as it circulated. It began as a man who trains firefighters on how to handle snakes. By the time it had spread, the man was marrying the snake who was his ‘reincarnated girlfriend’. How sssilly.
So who is to blame for these growing web of lies?
Dr Jeffrey Herbst, director of the Newseum in Washington, argues there are no gatekeepers of fake news and it is up to the individual to decide what is fake and what is not. But critics of social media say it’s not the individual’s fault since humans are gullible.
Those who blame social media argue platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have the infrastructure and ability to stop fake news spreading but why aren’t they? A recent image of a child with a rash shared and commented on by more than one million people claimed the child had cancer and called on users to like or leave comments in order to raise money. However, the child was in good health and had been suffering from chicken pox at the time. The mother said she repeatedly messaged Facebook complaining about the infringement and on February 10th, one of the accounts was removed for breaching the site’s rules. Yet it was back online within 24 hours. The post was only properly removed once the wider media reported it.
So how can society tackle fake news? As individuals, we all have a responsibility to check sources of stories before we share to understand if it is real or there is a chance it could be fake. Are they reputable? Are they a well-known news source? Are they a respectable blog or vlogger? Is it a personal plea? Be sure you’re happy to share before you hit the button. But the real responsibility lies with the social platforms themselves.
Years ago, when Facebook launched on the college campus, it could not have imagined being in the situation where it became a place people went for their news on the world; it was for news on your friends. But its power and reach has surprised everyone and as a place people now go to consume their news, Facebook has an obligation to ensure it’s not the world’s propagator of fake news. It’s not censorship, it’s just good practice from a brand which informs over one billion people every day.
So, after much pressure, Facebook has reacted to the issue by creating the ‘Facebook Journalism Project’. This is what it says:
“We recently announced improvements on our platform to further reduce the spread of news hoaxes — including ways for people to report them more easily and new efforts to disrupt the financial incentives for spammers. In addition, we launched a program to work with third-party fact checking organizations that are signatories of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles to identify hoaxes on Facebook. This problem is much bigger than any one platform, and it’s important for all of us to work together to minimize its reach.”
So Facebook is starting to do something but isn’t accepting absolute blame. Should it be doing more? We think so.