Fake news, that bizarre, oxymoronic term that reared its ugly head during the 2016 US presidential election has since slipped effortlessly into the public’s collective consciousness. The phrase has gained traction under the moniker ‘Alternative Facts’, an even more worrying term that appears to legitimise the existence of news with no basis in reality.
The concerning trend for fake news stories appears to have started life as a way for peddlers of internet fodder to boost social media followers, site visits and viral web traffic. But this clickbait has since taken a political turn for the worse.
‘You are fake news!’ Donald Trump cries pointing at CNN’s Jim Acosta, during his first press conference as President-elect. This may have been one of the first mainstream uses of the term, but its enduring influence was felt across both the Republican and Democrat election campaigns. An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that the top-performing fake election news on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets including the New York Times and Washington Post. One of the most crucial problems is that such stories tend to be overtly biased. BuzzFeed found that of the top 20 viral election fake news, all but three were either overtly pro-Trump, or anti-Clinton.
The top two most engaged with stories on Facebook at that time, based on likes, comments and shares, were a WikiLeaks ‘revelation’ that Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, and news that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President.
But, fake news is by no means a modern phenomenon. The Telegraph were able to uncover an article dating back to Ancient Rome, used by Octavian during a campaign of false information against Marc Anthony. Today, the rise of social media has allowed smaller groups to create and distribute false articles with the potential for a far greater reach than previous state-controlled propaganda.
Politics in the UK
The UK is still recovering from one of the most bitterly fought election battles in years, and one in which similar issues regarding fake news arose.
A Facebook page entitled Labour Future posted a fake NHS poster claiming that it would no longer be free from 2018, and included the real NHS phone number as the one to call to buy health insurance. The post was shared 3,000 times before being removed.
Still, while some fake news stories are 100 per cent false, there is a sinister grey area where legitimate information or quotes are taken out of context to serve a different agenda. During the last General Election campaign, Labour accused the Conservatives of creating fake news after a video of Jeremy Corbyn was edited so that he appeared to lend his support to the IRA.
The Guardian reported that the video had been viewed 5.3 million times, three times more than any other campaign video. The same Guardian article also references an advert paid for by the Conservatives that claimed Corbyn had plans to abolish Britain’s armed forces; an entirely false statement.
What’s the harm?
In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has no power to police political claims, meaning that the codes to check that an advert is legal, honest and truthful are not applied in full to political advertising. Following the Brexit result, and subsequent exposure of untruths such as the claim that the UK’s exit from the EU would result in an extra £350 million a week would go to the NHS, UKIP donor and main funder of the Leave. Eu campaign Arron Banks told The Guardian that, ‘It was taking an American-style media approach. What they said early on was ‘facts don’t work’, and that’s it.’
Increasingly, facts, and truth, appear to be taking a back seat. To win votes, all parties need to do is appeal to the electorate’s emotions. More and more, opposing opinions are presented simply as untruths. A recent Guardian article summed up the issue:
“If we cannot agree on what those truths are, and when there is no consensus about the truth and no way to achieve it, chaos soon follows.”
Katharine Viner, The Guardian
One of the other main issues is that algorithms, like those powering Facebook and Google searches, reinforce the views they believe we want to hear, making it harder to find a non-biased view of certain topics, such as the UK election. It is possible that this could contribute to the spread of fake news, in the sense that people are more likely to view something as credible and true if it reinforces an opinion they already hold, or is shared by friends with similar beliefs.
The spread of fake news could lead people to distrust what reputable news outlets present as fact, particularly if it is a viewpoint in opposition to theirs.
Who’s stopping it?
Several internet bigwigs, including Google and YouTube, have implemented strategies to target the spread of fake news and help young people identify false stories.
In April 2017, YouTube launched its Internet Citizens workshops for users aged 13 to 18 aimed at teaching them what to do in response to hate speech, fake news or echo chambers – the phenomenon when certain views are repeated to a point when they become unquestionable, and how to use video to bring diverse groups together. ‘The internet is what we want it to be,’ said Alain “Fusion” Clapham, one of the workshop hosts.
“The internet is what we want it to be,’ said Alain “Fusion” Clapham, one of the workshop hosts. ‘It can be an unpleasant place where people misunderstand and deliberately deceive each other. Or, it can be this amazing place where we can share, collaborate, understand and help each other.”
Alain “Fusion” Clapham, Internet Citizens workshop host
Also in April, Google announced changes to its search engine including new tools allowing users to report misleading or offensive content to try and reduce the spread of fake news.
‘In a world where tens of thousands of pages are coming online every minute of every day, there are new ways that people try to game the system, said Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering for Google Search in an article in The Guardian. ‘We’ve adjusted our signals to help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content,’
The company also invested €50,000 through the Google Digital News Initiative, into UK-startup Factmata, ‘The idea is a scalable real-time system that uses AI to detect stuff that is potentially misleading,’ Factmata founder Dhruv Gulati told Wired.
A series of not-for-profit groups dedicated to exposing fake news have also emerged, including Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact checking charity. They provide free tools, information and advice so that anyone can check claims heard from politicians and the press and, perhaps most crucially, remain neutral and independent of government, political parties and the media.
Stop Hate is another group tackling dangerous views on the internet. The organisation looks at the fallout from fake and biased news stories and the resulting rise of hate speech online.
But for now it falls on the backs of individuals to ensure they double check the stories they read and news they consume, a job far more complicated than it might appear.