In the age of smartphones and lightning fast access to the internet, a sinister trend has emerged with the potential for dangerous consequences. The term ‘Fake news’ appears to have first come about, or at least widely known, during the famous exchange in January 2017 at a press briefing exchange between President-elect Trump and CNN news reporter Jim Acosta. However, the concept of fake news existed long before the 2016 Presidential Election – there wouldn’t be much that any modern practitioner could have taught Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, for instance – although has only recently been effectively weaponised for political gain.
The phrase is now on everyone’s lips and pens, particularly in the USA. Several links have been made between Trump’s successful campaign and a concerted barrage of fake news on social media. Russian interference is cited as having a particularly malign influence on the result of the election. Similarly, the Brexit referendum was also tainted with fake news, according to studies. These cases demonstrate the more sinister implications fake-news can have on major political decisions.
What is fake news?
‘Fake News’ is the presentation of information that is a half truth, a misrepresentation or completely false. When presented to an audience on a glossy webpage complete with advertisements, this information appears to become more believable to an audience. ‘Why would these advertisers endorse this news source if it was lying to me?’ This is particularly the case when, as so often on social media, the information presented in this way confirms a belief the audience holds (‘confirmation bias’). The pay-per-click relationship between advertisers and these pages means that the objective is to attract as many views as possible. A common tactic employed for this is a ‘clickbait’ headline. Have you ever seen one of these headlines that are just too juicy not to find out more?
Usually, fake news stories struggle to gain traction and don’t attract attention from a large audience. Many are concerned with little more than salacious gossip. However, every so often a well-crafted piece of fake news can strike a note with people and be circulated throughout social media before the story can be debunked. Political stories can be particularly subject to this due to political biases. Have you ever seen ‘ergh the [insert political party] are at it again!’ on your social media feed? Or more commonly, ‘Trump says xyz, Democrats outraged’. If you hold a strong dislike of a political organisation, then these headlines can reinforce that opinion and drive people further in to their political ruts. Given enough of effective enough stories this can influence the outcome of elections.
Tabloid papers are highly adept at using careful manipulations of the truth, in combination with an eye-grabbing headline to attract an audience. This article in The Sun’s website is a classic example. The headline is inflammatory and implies that Piers Morgan directly told Susanna Reid that she should go topless on air. However, if one was to watch the video embedded at the beginning of the article (after waiting through a 30 second advert), they would learn that the context is completely different. In the context of talking about Kim Kardashian selling her beauty line, Piers claims that if Susanna were to go topless right there and then, she’d also be able to build a $200 million beauty empire. The headline is technically true, but some manipulation of the context makes the headline look worst than the actual story. Countless other examples could be found, many a lot more insidious than this one.
What can be done?
At the individual level, there are a number of details you can pay attention to to help you avoid it. To begin with, who is publishing it? Not all news outlets are the same. A key factor in sorting the wheat from the chaff is understanding how the outlets make their money. For pure news, without opinion mixed in, traditional newspaper outlets are good sources of information. This is because the survival of their platform (albeit decreasingly so) is tied to their providing good information. If they don’t, then people will choose not to subscribe, either in print or online. It is therefore in their best interest to remain at least reasonably reliable, even if this might not run to expressing opinions that are likely to to reinforce their readers’ opinions.
(One notable exception to this is the BBC, which is funded through the annual television license. A similar principle still applies, though, in that the BBC still requires licence fees to keep producing content and so needs to demonstrate the popularity of its content. However, many feel the licensing system is out of step with the modern world. Increasing numbers of people are choosing to cancel their TV licence, and get their entertainment through abundant streaming services and online news outlets. This puts the BBC under pressure to remain entertaining and eye-grabbing. Ofcom launched an investigation in to the BBC’s use of ‘clickbait’ content. However, this is in no way accusing the BBC of publishing fake news. While there are on-going debates as to whether the BBC remains neutral, I only cite the BBC for ‘click-baiting’.)
An outlet that relies purely on third-party advertising, however, such as Buzzfeed, requires rather less of its audience. Rather than subscribing through a paid subscription system, these outlets only require views on the pages with adverts in order to make the revenue they need to remain online. This, while not true of all online outlets, encourages some to practise click-baiting. This means that a writer can produce practically whatever they want to and present it as ‘news’ because as long as the page has adverts, and people view that page, the publisher will keep being paid.
Another way to verify an article, is to check if the page has any hyperlinks to their sources. A page chock-full of adverts but no hyperlinks in the text may be unreliable source of information because the audience can’t check to see where to writer has got their information from. Again, the publisher may not have nefarious intentions, but linking your sources is an age-old practise in academia and a good way to build trust with your audience.
If an article quotes someone then information about when or where the remark was first made should be provided. If they aren’t, copying the phrase into a search engine could quickly provide you with some details. Public figures often claim they were quoted out of context and this is sometimes true, as the Piers Morgan example above shows.
It is also worth checking when the article was published and (which may not be the same thing) when the event it describes took place. For instance, occasionally, a variation of this news story pops up on my personal Facebook feed because I have a personal interest in history. Because of this I’m subscribed to relevant groups that distribute information on that topic. However, this article was published in November 2019, and despite the fact we are now half way through 2020, this article keeps resurfacing. Why?
I’d hazard to guess that it’s designed to be inflammatory to me and to those who share my interests. As a result I would (in theory) feel an urge to engage with it, to click, share and comment, even if I was expressing my frustrations with the story. This is exactly what the publisher is relying on. They want engagement with that post because it will drive more clicks, and so more advertising revenue, their way. A well worded headline citing something that happened a long time ago, while omitting when it happened, leads to people engaging with the article as if it were fresh.
A number of fact-checking websites exist which some, such as snopes.com, being mainly focused on US stories. Full Fact describes itself as ‘the UK’s independent fact-checking charity’. It claims to be independent and impartial and its lack of adverts and published list of donors (principal among which is, slightly surreally, Facebook) seems to support this. Try it yourself and see how it handles the latest eye-catching claim that drops into your social-media feed. The trouble is that researching a claim properly takes time and so may not be reported by them for some days.
Unfortunately, avoiding these kinds of misinformation is getting more and more difficult. Even sources that used to be viewed as reputable have started engaging in the same dubious click-baiting behaviour. Facebook advertising has become a highly lucrative business, aimed directly at your personal online presence. Hopefully this article helps the reader to vet their news and identify fake-news. Time is also of the essence now (or made to appear so) – every post invites you to share, like or comment, often before you’ve had a chance to consider the veracity of what it contains. The domination of digital platforms has therefore both increased the need for audiences to evaluate their news and diminished the time that we’re prepared to spend doing so (even though this can only take a few clicks). It is therefore all too easy for nonsense to be given spurious authority by wide circulation and for people to get caught in information echo-chambers where similar views and perspectives are constantly bounced around without challenge.
Header image: Sir Francis Walsingham by Granger, from the Fine Art America website; and Donald Trump, from the USA Today website.