IMPAKTER ESSAY: WHY FAKE NEWS GOES VIRAL
AND WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT
Fake news is emotionally-charged bits of disinformation. And, in large numbers and constantly repeated – online, news travels fast and far – it can be lethal. As was chillingly demonstrated by the murder of Jo Cox, a young British Labour MP and mother of two, a few days before the Brexit referendum. The perpetrator of the crime was an older man unhinged by the fake news; he saw her as unpatriotic, a threat to UK sovereignty, simply because she was campaigning in the Remain camp. He thought he was defending the Queen and the British Empire . . . Unfortunately, her murder did not reverse the tide of public opinion in favor of exiting the EU.
IN THE PHOTO: On 22 June 2016, memorial events were held around the world to celebrate what would have been Jo Cox’s 42nd birthday. She was stabbed to death on June 16 by a man who yelled “This is for Britain”, “Keep Britain Independent”, “Britain first” PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr/GarryKnight
This lethal dimension of fake news is no doubt the reason why Hillary Clinton decided to briefly come out of her post-campaign retreat and issue a “call to action” to arrest the “epidemics of false news” on the heels of the #pizzagate scandal. In case you haven’t heard, #pizzagate refers to a string of false news on Twitter that had been running since November about an alleged child abuse ring run by Clinton and friends from a Washington pizza restaurant. A young man, convinced by the fake news – it had been even retweeted by Donald Trump’s nominee as national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Flynn and his son – walked in the restaurant on Sunday 3 December with an assault rifle in hand, determined to find out whether the story was true. Fortunately in this case, nobody got killed.
The United States, in the recent presidential campaign, has been living through a paroxysm of fake news, to the extent that fake news was shared more often than real news in the week before the election.
PHOTO: Diagram showing fake news vs mainstream news, plotted as #shares, likes and comments in months leading to 8 November election. PHOTO CREDIT: Buzzfeed
Mainstream media has rightly shown deep concern over the issue and written some thoughtful analyses. We were treated to a remarkable analysis of journalism since the 1980’s and the rise of fake news by Susan Glasser, the co-founder of Politico, published by the Brookings Institution.
She concluded dispiritedly that “we’ve achieved a lot more transparency in today’s Washington [compared to the 1980’s when she first started as a journalist],” but she lamented, “without the accountability that was supposed to come with it.” Her solution? She’s withdrawn from the Washington scene and has just moved to Jerusalem to “become a foreign correspondent again for a few years.” I can understand that, she sees Jerusalem as “a troubled part of the world where the stones thrown are real and not metaphorical.” But reporting on the throwing of “real stones” is not for everyone and surely not a solution to the problem of fake news. We still need “accountability.” Before considering how to achieve this, we need to understand the processes underlying fake news.
From Fake News to “Hybrid War”
We have always known that politics is the art of lying convincingly and have come to expect that the campaign promises made by politicians are only kept in part, if at all. Obama was never able to shut down Guantanamo and Trump is unlikely to build a physical wall against Mexico. But with the rise of social media, fake news is no longer stopped by serious, analytical articles in the mainstream papers; too often, it has taken on a second life online:
- Because we are fully interconnected in real time, it means that when you catch cold in California, your friend in France will worry about you. This is nice and increases intimacy among friends, but it also means that what is objectively non-news for most people (your cold) gets equal space on the Internet as authentic news; as a result, we are confronted daily with a tsunami of so-called “news”, or bits of mostly trivial information and tend to become passive to the point that we no longer react to obviously false news;
- Because celebrity figures have taken to Twitter and Facebook – foremost among them Donald Trump who started out his Twitter career when he was still a TV reality star – they have swollen the streams of false news whenever they thoughtlessly share them;
- Because news is passed on among friends at the touch of a button, with “likes” and “shares” at lightning speed, soon nobody knows where the news originated; this provides a wonderful opportunity for hackers to plant false news.
Hackers have weaponized the news, turning old-fashioned politics into cyber-politics, or what military experts now call “hybrid war.” Recent examples abound, for example, last summer “unidentified” hackers attacked a Lithuania Defense Ministry site, planting the false news that the planned NATO military exercises were a cover-up to invade the Russian city of Kaliningrad. This created quite a commotion in the small Baltic state that has a real fear of its big Russian neighbor.
In fact, in NATO circles, hybrid war has become a chief concern. In an interview with Newsweek, Rasmussen, former NATO chief, confided that Russia was engaged in a hybrid war in Europe, just as it had done in Ukraine, encouraging the Donbass region to secede while it took over Crimea. He suggested that what Russia was doing was “a mix of very well-known conventional warfare and new, more sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns,” mentioning that this included “efforts to influence public opinion through financial links with political parties within NATO and engagement in NGOs.”
The Turning Point in Fake News: Brexit and the US Presidential Election Campaign
The magnitude of the problem was brought home to most Americans with Trump’s election, and to most Europeans a little before that, with Brexit. The UK vote to exit the European Union was an irrational decision that caught most Europeans by surprise – not just the establishment but also British millennials, less concerned about British sovereignty than their elders and used to seeing Europe in their future, partly as a result of Erasmus, the successful European student exchange program (it reached 3.3 million students in 2014 since its start in 1987).
Yet we shouldn’t have been so surprised, we’d had ample warning as the Brexit campaign heated up and British politicians, UKIP’s Farage and the ex-mayor of London Boris Johnson, resorted openly to disinformation. What was remarkable is that they got away with it, notably with the infamous red bus sporting a false message that nevertheless swayed public opinion (and that Johnson later admitted couldn’t be carried through).
PHOTO: This totally overlooked the benefits the UK received from the EU. Moreover, whatever savings the UK might achieve by leaving the EU cannot go to fund the NHS (National Health Service) due to other budgetary priorities PHOTO CREDIT: OneEurope Welcome to the “Post-Truth Politics” Age 6 Nov 2016
Recently, the debate around Russian hacking of the National Democratic Convention has re-surfaced as the CIA reported its findings, confirming both the F.S.B. (ex-KGB) and the Russian military were behind it. Moreover Russian attempts to interfere in the American election process have extended to the level of House races in several states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois, New Mexico and North Carolina. Mainstream media latched onto the news, and the New York Times even compared the NDC hack to an electronic Watergate, with a foreign power (Russia) as the culprit this time. The Republican Convention was also reportedly hacked but no compromising emails were ever leaked to the press.
Are “hacked news” the same as fake news?
They may tell the truth but it is a particular truth, a personal one, usually not for general consumption. As such, they constitute a breach of privacy and their release by political foes is calculated to bring damage to the opposition. Thus, they share a role with fake news in distorting public opinion. There is little doubt that Russian hacking is ultimately aimed at discrediting American democracy.
Wikileaks also played a key role in the Clinton denigration campaign, providing ammunition to the Republicans with 19,000 email leaks that were piloted from Moscow. Whether Wikileaks can survive with its reputation intact is a moot point, although Assange has strenuously defended his “right” to spread the news, while happily taking responsibility for the averse impact on Clinton’s campaign.
IN THE PHOTO: This is how the Daily Mail announced it (2 August 2016) “Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks site published the thousands of emails that rocked the Democratic National Committee on the eve of the party’s convention, says his group is in possession of ‘a lot’ of material related Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and that it will come out as the campaign proceeds.” Not a word about RNC. PHOTO CREDIT: : Mail Online
How Fake News Underpins Populism
Italy’s December 4 referendum resulted in another strikingly irrational outcome: 60% of Italians voted against a constitutional reform that, however incomplete and unsatisfactory, would have led to a reduction in the number of politicians – something one would have thought most Italians wanted since they’ve made it a national sport to hate their political class, disdainfully calling them the “caste”, the title of a 2007 runaway best-seller.
How to explain such a surprising result? Many factors contributed, notably Premier Renzi’s mistake of tying himself to the “yes” vote (which acted as a red flag for his opponents), but there is no doubt that fake news played an important part. Before the referendum, fake news aimed at Premier Renzi exploded, including mystery twitter accounts and false news site mimicking the name of real sites (for example, “Libero Giornale” conflating in one name two real mainstream media, Libero and Il Giornale) that spread news about Renzi and his allies allegedly manipulating the electoral system. After Renzi’s successor, Paolo Gentiloni, had been sworn in by Parliament, he was immediately attacked for supposedly declaring that “Italians should learn to make sacrifices and stop complaining”, something he has never said. The “Libero Giornale” site spreading the fake news was eventually traced to another “counter-culture” site called Edinet.bg, an “editorial group” located in Bulgaria but headed by an Italian and financed by Italians.
Many of these proliferating false news sites are linked to a newcomer on the Italian political scene, the 5 Star Movement, founded in 2009 by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, highly popular with millennials, particularly with disenfranchised voters without jobs or future (over 40% of the young are unemployed). Like all the other populist parties in Europe – whether Farrage’s UKIP or Marine Le Pen’s Front National – the 5 Star Movement calls for Italy’s withdrawal from the EU and the Euro, seen as the culprits of economic stagnation. The 5 Star Movement is remarkable in two ways:
- it has built a “sprawling network of websites and social media accounts that are spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and pro-Kremlin stories to millions of people”, according to BuzzFeed News (a finding confirmed by local sources);
- it is a master at manipulating the news and make them seem what they are not.
To understand how it does the latter, it is instructive to read Beppe Grillo’s Blog, the party’s masthead. On 12 December – a day chosen at random -, we navigated to the blog and here is what we found (screenshot):
Photo: Screenshot,Beppe Grillo’s Blog
Notice how the lead headline loudly attacks Premier Renzi’s “1000 days of hell”, accusing Renzi’s government of costing “66 million of public debt daily”: this kind of political attack is to be expected, but it is clearly tendentious. No government can stop public debt from running, and Italy has one of the largest in the world.
But look at the center of the page, see that sad-eyed monkey with electrodes sticking out of his head, and the title above: “Vivisezione, la Commissione Europea ignora un millione di firme”, roughly: “Vivisection, the European Commission ignores one million signatures.” If true, this would be remarkable news. Did the European Commission really “ignore” the petition against the use of animals in bio-medical research launched by Citizen’s Initiative in 2015 and that collected some 1.2 million signatures?
A quick investigation reveals that the European Commission did no such thing. First, a hearing on the Stop Vivisection petition was held by the European Parliament on 11 May 2015, and the hearing did not go well for the petitioners. The Parliament tended to listen more to the arguments of the European Animal Research Association (EARA), a European-wide advocacy group for biomedical research. Shortly thereafter, on 3 June, the European Commission made its own position known (see here):
“The Commission confirms that it shares the Citizens’ Initiative’s conviction that animal testing should be phased out. At the same time, it points out that this is the main aim of the EU’s rules on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes (Directive 2010/63/EU), which the Initiative seeks to repeal. The Commission considers that the Directive is the right legislation to achieve the underlying objectives of the Initiative, therefore no repeal of that legislation is proposed […] Once the Directive has been in force long enough to assess its effectiveness, the Commission will review it.”
And there the matter rested.
But the 5 Star Movement, intent to carry on its battle against European institutions, would not let go. This month, it organized a “parallel conference” at the European Parliament in support of repealing the EU Directive and uploaded a video on YouTube (8 December 2016), featuring British veterinarian Dr. Andre Menache. You can see him arguing (in English) that the “scientific validity of animal testing” has never been proved:
Feel the emotions this man is conveying? Of course, animal testing should be regulated to reduce suffering to an absolute minimum, but it is equally obvious that there are cases where direct testing on humans cannot be done. Animal testing has always paused a quandary to humanitarians: not doing it could slow down needed research to fight disease, doing it necessarily causes pain to animals.
You see the problem with fake news. To counter them with the truth takes some work: you need to do research, pull the arguments together, make sure your choice of words is unemotional, that the situation is presented objectively. And it requires a lot of attention on the part of the reader too: she needs to listen and to register and digest the arguments.
Too much work compared to fake news that give your emotions a free run…And a populist party like the 5 Star Movement is adept at promoting social issues that are both emotionally charged and appeal to socially-conscious millennials. It presents itself as a party firmly riding the high moral ground: Justice, equity, the defense of the environment, of gender, of discrimination etc. This pattern – of dressing up fake or tendentious information in an ethical package – is a key feature of populism.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and his friend Amos Tversky – and Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow that founded behavioral economics – we now know that people are not as rational as once thought. That fake news should be psychologically more satisfying than real news comes as no surprise.
Does that remind you of the discussions surrounding climate change? It should. The pattern is always the same:
- Find a handful of respectable scientists who dissent with the mainstream of science (you can always find them);
- Give them a megaphone to speak out (in this case YouTube) and make sure that they express opinions and emotions – not rational arguments, too cold, too boring.
Because that is how we, as citizens, live politics today: We have no time for real debate, weighing the pros and cons objectively – and no appetite for it.
But what you should do is look at who is giving that scientist the megaphone and why. There’s always a hidden agenda. In this case, the 5 Star Movement is determined to prove that European institutions are remote from reality, they do not work, they do not listen to the people, down with Europe! If the vivisection issue can help move that fight forward, so be it, the 5 Star Movement will keep it alive.
Politicization of fake or semi-fake, tendentious news has become so widespread we have become, alas, largely inured to them. We need to ask ourselves why we’ve become so willing to accept them.
Fake News Need a Welcoming Ground to Thrive
Fakes news are nothing new. Hitler and Stalin, with their propaganda machines, were past masters at it. Today, with the rise of authoritarianism across the world, we are seeing a resurgence of fake news, notably in Russia and Turkey.
Tell a Russian that his country’s air force is bombarding hospitals in Syria, he won’t believe you, he’ll say it’s a lie invented by the Americans.
Tell a Turk that President Erdogan is a threat to freedom of expression in his country and jailing a growing number of journalists on false grounds. He’ll claim Erdogan is right to jail them, that they are part of a vast anti-Turkish conspiracy orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen who lives in America and is protected by the Americans.
What is shocking is that fake news is as much at home in democracies than in authoritarian regimes. Historically, democracies were thought of as havens of freedom. No more. A recent UK Guardian article found that fake news are now going global, including in a number of countries with strong democracies. Among the most blatant examples:
- In Germany, the news that a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin had been raped by Middle-Eastern refugees proved false, but not before a medical examination showed she had not been raped;
- In France, a rising number of false sites, pretending to be information sites, have earned the nickname “fachosphère” (facho meaning fascist); one recent example, is the news that the centre-right politician Alain Juppé was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood;
- In Australia, the halal certification industry is regularly linked to terrorism despite a lack of evidence, to the extent that an inquiry was held late last year; even though it found there was no basis to the connection, the news continued to spread on Facebook, where the “Boycott Halal in Australia” group has close to 100,000 members.
Examples can be multiplied everywhere, including in war theaters – Aleppo in Syria is a case in point, with a number of videos and Twitter accounts that may, or may not be false and the product of warring factions or humanitarian activists (hard to tell which).
Who can forget the iconic picture of a 5-year old Syrian boy pulled out of the rubble this summer that Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed was false. More recently, on December 15, the Syrian Ambassador brought a fake photograph to the UN Security Council claiming Syrian troops were helping the local population in Aleppo. The only problem: this was a cropped photo that did not show the Iraqi badge on one of the soldiers: The photo was about Iraqi forces helping civilians displaced from Faluja…
IN THE PHOTO: Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told the UN Security Council that this photo showed a woman fleeing eastern Aleppo, when it was in fact a displaced person from Faluja, Iraq, being helped by Iraqi soldiers. PHOTO CREDIT: CNN News
The Syrian war seems to have inspired fake news activists who don’t hesitate to deny evidence. Among evidence deniers, Eva Bartlett stands out. A self-billed “independent” Canadian journalist and known contributor to RT (a Russian news outlet), she supports the current Syrian regimes. At a recent UN press conference on Syria held on 9 December 2016, she flat out denied the Al Quds Hospital was bombed in April 2016, arguing it was never bombed, in spite of a detailed report from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors Without Borders) and video footage to the contrary. The report dissecting the statements of this supposed journalist by the fact-checking site Snopes is chilling.
Further disturbing data is emerging regarding how fake news spread. A recent Pew Center survey, carried out in the wake of the 2016 election, (1 – 4 December 2016), found that while two-thirds of the respondents agreed fake news left “Americans confused about basic facts”, only 39% felt “very confident in their ability to recognize fake news” and 23% admitted to sharing fake news, unwittingly or, for a whopping 14%, willingly. That is a lot of people willing to lie.
Why does fake news go viral? There are psychological reasons and all of them work best online:
- Fake news can be fun, it makes you smile, it can excite you, it stirs your emotions; there’s no humor in real news.
- Fake news gives you a feeling of importance, of superiority: With fake news in hand, you’re “ahead of the curve”, you know something others don’t – very satisfying.
- Fake news appeals to the inner you, it confirms you in your convictions; this is what we mean when we say that you live in an “echo chamber” surrounded by like-minded friends.
In fact, most fake news nowadays appears on social media, though printed media is not dead yet. But as Trump has pointed out several times, the traditional mainstream media – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal – are all “crooked media”, not to be believed.
The situation is similar in Europe, and the implicit conclusion is always the same: Forget the newspapers, you should believe what you see on Facebook and Twitter (and other social media such as YouTube).
In fact, Twitter has been upgraded to the rank of a prime purveyor of news and fund-raising. The International Red Cross and United Nations humanitarian agencies used Twitter to speed up aid after the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010 and have relied on Twitter thereafter. And recently Reuters, the news media titan, has built its own algorithmic prediction tool to help it verify “breaking news” on Twitter.
US President-elect Trump knows well the power of Twitter or perhaps, it is the other way around: His own tweets maintain Twitter in the forefront of news. There is little doubt that Trump is on his way to becoming the first Twitter President in History, sharing his opinions and decisions with his 17+ million followers on Twitter. It has become his preferred press channel (and once President, he could well may maintain it). It can be extraordinarily effective and even impact finance (Wall Street is notably jittery). Like this tweet that cost investors billions of dollars as the stock of Martin-Lockheed, the company making the F-35 fighter plane, plunged in the markets:
It is instructive to see who Trump follows, a meager total of 40 persons. Besides family (e.g. daughter Ivanka) and a handful of friends (e.g. ex-campaign manager Lewandowski), they include: The Drudge Report, Sean Hannity, Eric Bolling (of Fox News), Fox Nation, Fox & Friends, Mark Burnett, Vince McMahon (WWE CEO), Laura Ingraham. That’s it, everyone with a strong conservative political persuasion: The perfect echo chamber…In short, Twitter is Trump’s megaphone but not a tool for him to listen to public opinion. Or for that matter, to communicate with his own team. Remarkably enough, he follows none of his recent nominees to government posts except for VP Pence.
What to Do
To fix fake news for good will take a long time and the efforts of many people working in many directions.
First, “hybrid warfare.” This will be a problem for specialized government agencies to solve. Some countries are better than others at cyber warfare, in particular Russia, but there is no doubt that if America wanted to, it could become just as good or better. It managed to do so after Russia’s success with Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, and it can do so again. How to do this is well beyond the scope of this article.
Second, education. The population’s general ability to detect false news requires an average level of education far higher than is generally found today. If the Pew Center survey is right, some 15 percent of “US adults are not very/not at all confident in their ability to recognize fake news”. Moreover, this ability is often lower among the older population that has grown away from its student days and tends to be entrenched in the “experience” a lifetime of work has generated. Brexit, unsurprisingly, was voted for by a very large proportion of the over-50.
Third, social media, mainly Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the most fertile grounds for fake news (though other, newer media more popular with millennials should also be included here).
Mark Zuckerberg has been the target of much criticism during the past Presidential campaign, first from Republicans (too many liberal news) and now from Democrats (too many fake news). Twitter likewise was found wanting, and if Google escaped criticism, it is because it is a search engine rather than a social network – yet it does not distinguish between fake and real news: When you do a search, it is up to you to see the difference, you will get no help from Google.
Is the answer to pull politics out of social media? Yes and No.
Yes, when dealing with messages from known terrorist associations like ISIS. And Twitter has done a commendable job on this.
No in all other cases, since social media is there to allow people to connect friends and share what they think – including about politics. To remove a whole area of discussion is unthinkable, it goes counter to the First Amendment and freedom of expression. Besides fake news affect all areas of human knowledge – not just politics.
If we agree to leave it all in (except for ISIS and similar), how do we deal with it?
Not easy but doable. In principle, Facebook, Google and Twitter – but especially Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent) – have the means and the technical capacity to devise algorithms to identify fake news – or at least identify the words that tend to characterize fake news. That should not be too hard. We’ve seen the psychology of fake news: they play on emotions, they use military vocabulary, even sado-masochistic terminology.
Facebook has recently announced it planned to tackle the fake news problem, but the plan immediately drew criticism: It was limited to political news, it relied on FB users to flag the fake news, it would forward them for vetting to “non-partisan, professional” fact-checking sites, but only five of them (Snopes, FactCheck.org, Politifact, ABC News, and AP, all members of the Poynter network), without even paying for the work done – an extraordinary imposition of Facebook on these sites’ resources, particularly in some cases (for example FactCheck.org can only release one person for the task – while ABC News can assign 5 or 6 because it is financed by Walt Disney). Fake news could number millions…In addition, Facebook does not plan to pull down all related (and similar) fake news across its site, merely alert the reader for that particular bit of “disputed” news. Note the terminology: Facebook shied away from calling a spade a spade and picked a neutral term, “disputed”, that implies there may be some bit of truth in it.
In a word, it is doing next to nothing.
Yet, if the problem is to be solved, it will require a comprehensive approach. Facebook cannot delegate the task to someone else. Or if it does, it must pay for it. And it needs to recognize that it cannot merely depend on FB users to flag fake news. Or rely on its algorithms. At present, artificial intelligence is not yet able to mimic the kind of reasoning a human analyst is capable of. Algorithms are likely to reject material that is genuine along with the false, so that human oversight is still needed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In short, for the system to work, Facebook (and other social media) will need to do the following:
- Set up algorithms that identify “suspicious” news, i.e. news that are unverified, tendentious and/or misleading;
- Send the stream of suspicious news to a team of “reality gate-keepers”, i.e. a full range of experts to check veracity and reliability; they will act as filters, identifying the “quality” of the news, tagging them perhaps in three ways: “verified” (real news), “unverified” (fake news), “hypothetical” (tendentious, misleading, news with an obvious spin or missing a large element) – incidentally, those are far better words than the single weak one Facebook proposes to use: “disputed”, and they comprise 3 categories (not just one).
Once the news is tagged, Facebook (and the others) can do one of several things:
- Pull down the “unverified” news and stop them from circulating through shares and likes;
- Allow them to circulate with a tag that identifies them as “unverified”, “verified” or “hypothetical”;
- Warn the Facebook user that she is about to circulate an “unverified” or, as the case may be, a “hypothetical” news, and that the said tag will show up next to her upload – a little like chyrons show up on television screens to warn you of breaking news.
Option #3 might be best: It would allow people the freedom to circulate whatever idea they want and show that Facebook is not interfering with their opinions.
Why we need reality-check gatekeepers
We’ve always had “gatekeepers”, people who are experts in their field and spend their lives drilling down their knowledge in specialized areas. Not all of us have time (or the capacity) to pile up knowledge in every field.
This is why a team of experts set up to analyze “suspicious” news stream needs to be very large and able to cover every possible area of human knowledge. Facebook must accept that it is a social media “publisher” and act like one. Take the responsibility. Take on board the same expertise as traditional publishers use.
PHOTO: A reviewer at the National Institutes of Health PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons
Scientific publications provide a clear model of how this is done – and incidentally, they also show us what happens if scientific breakthroughs and innovations are not properly “peer-reviewed”: False news can spread there too. False news is not something that only bedevils social media. But the means exist to limit the damage, and those means, a.k.a. gatekeepers, must be used.
Reality-check gatekeepers have a role to play and we should let them play their role online as they do in the physical world.
Recommended reading: “2016 THE YEAR IN REVIEW AND WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2017“