Some In-depth Thoughts on Fake News

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We promise that for now this is the last time we write about the guy. But after cutting the interview with Bloomberg’s Jacki Kelley last week, the discussion came up about a question that may sound simple, but that is actually very complicated:

“What is fake news?”

And why is it such a problem?

Let’s start with the definition and make one thing clear right of the bat. We can’t use the definition of the aforementioned guy, whose name is Donald. Because it serves no purpose and roughly goes like this:

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In the end “You are FAKE news!” is just a vacuous claim that only serves as an insult.

The term “fake news” has also been around for longer than since the day Mr Trump’s first press conference took place at January 11th, 2017. And what fake news actually is should be worrysome for every company around the globe. Today, we’ll take a look at how fake news arise from the depths of the internet, and how they are able to influence public perception as well as elections.

But first: What does the dictionary say? And: What isn’t“fake news”?

It wasn’t Webster’s, but the Wikipedia led us to this piece of content on First Draft News. The author identifies seven types of mis- and disinformation. While not all of these are ill-intentioned, she claims that they have one thing in common: that they are produced intentionally and with full knowledge that the information being spread is false.

 

The 7 Types of Mis- and Disinformation:

  1. Satire and Parody: No intention to cause harm but has potential to fool
  2. Misleading Content: Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual
  3. Imposter Content: When genuine sources are impersonated
  4. Fabricated Content: New content is 100 percent false, designated to deceive and do harm
  5. False Connection: When headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content
  6. False Context: When genuine content is shared with false contextual information
  7. Manipulated Content: When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive

With all of these types intent plays a big role. And looking at the journalistic device of parody, as well as the possibility that humans can make honest mistakes or that there are journalists with an agenda, yes, these types of misinformation are found within the mainstream media.

But misleading information broadcast by CNN is a problem of another quality than fake news that originate from web forums.

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Because traditional journalism usually follows rules and principles. In most countries it has to be backed by facts or reliable sources and avoid slander or libel. Of course, it can be coloured by opinion, but the facts must be verified. And if a publication or a single journalist don’t abide by these standards their work can be fact-checked and they can be held accountable.

It is a core practice in journalism that the big media corporations and news agencies are in a race to get the facts quickest and to report them first. There is investigation and (for the most part and with varying quality) honesty in this profession.

But…

All of the rules journalism abides by are out the window when it comes to the internet.

The phenomenon of fake news from the web

Originally, fake news meant something else. It wasn’t just an insult that was being thrown around. Instead, it adressed a phenomenon. Repeatedly, especially in the time before the US election, but also in Europe during the refugee crisis, false stories would be widely spread on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. They would repeat headlines from imposter news-websites such as abcnews.com.com or bloomberg.ma, from sites like InfoWars (please don’t visit these), or even stories from anonymous web forums such as reddit and 4chan.

According to Jacki Kelley right before the US election 4 out of the top 5 trending pieces on Facebook were not real. They were fake.

NewspaperThe question is: how could these stories become so widespread?

The answer lies within the “community” that made them so, and within the rules that govern social media nowadays.

1. The Community

Let’s remember the 7 types of misinformation. What would you say, if we told you that there are online communities where anonymous users with to some extend very diverse backgrounds gather to share fake news deliberately?

They exist.

One is on the anonymous forums of reddit, and it is the fan community of Mr Trump. Other ones are on the “politically incorrect” /pol/ boards on 4chan and 8chan (imageboard websites that are also anonymous). There you will find several types of users who share stories, memes and opinions on topics that are mostly discussed by the alt-right movement. There are hateful insults to foreigners, there is misleading commentary on political debates, there are false news stories that often stem from sites like those we mentioned above, and there is over-the-top celebratory pro alt-right discussion.

The people who post there do so with diverse intents:

  • there are internet trolls and teenagers who find it “funny”
  • there are actual right-wing activists who want to further their agenda
  • there are people who hate Mexicans or Africans or “the Left” or “the Global Elite” for several reasons
  • allegedly(!) there are Russian users who are paid to promote this type of content in order to destabilise public discourse in Western democracies
  • and there are bots, software programs that share the content automatically and en masse

Because these forums are anonymous, it is impossible to say which participants belong to which groups. And because of the extreme views of some of the people and the hyperbole of others who see it all as a joke, the content being shared is also extreme, sometimes ludicrous.

And how does the content leave these communities? There, we have to take a look at how social media work today.

2. Social Media

There are several parts to the story of why this content can make it to social media. The most important thing is, though, that on some level most users of these communities want it to reach the mainstream social media sites. Whether to “troll” or to further their agenda. There are several stages to the process of how this works.

First, on a site like 4chan where everybody is anonymous, all types of content can be posted without any repercussions. Content doesn’t stay visible there for long and most of the posts won’t make it to other websites. But some do, on other sites like reddit.

Second, reddit is one of the most popoular websites in the world. If 4chan is an anarchy, reddit is a democracy though. People can open so-called “subreddits” which are forums on specific topics like cats, cooking or cars. Within these subreddits content can be posted by everyone. But whether it will be highly visible is decided by all other users who have the ability to vote a picture or news story up or down. Content that gets lots of upvotes will make it to the top and eventually be visible on reddit’s “frontpage” that can be seen by every user who visits the site. And this is, how content that celebrated Donald Trump (for example) could become so popoular on the web. Because most people on this site only scan the headlines they see. And headlines with many upvotes seem to have authority and thus to be true.

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But in case of the Donald Trump subreddit, it was the explicit goal of the users to upvote everything. Bots were written to automatically upvote every piece of information that would be posted there, while the administrators would delete everything that was remotely critical of Donald Trump. Before the election, reddit’s frontpage was flooded by alt-right propaganda.

Third, there are many “normal” people on reddit. People like you and me. And these people have opinions on politics that they like to discuss. There even may be people who are a bit racist or agree with parts of conservative policy. These people, because of their cognitive biases would read and share information they agree with, too. For example on Facebook or Twitter.

And fourth, networks like Facebook and Twitter have rules similar to reddit’s. Of course, here people don’t post anonymously, but that can be mitigated by using lots of bots. For example, more than half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fakeTwitterbots can automatically like, retweet or otherwise interact with content on the network, and the mass use of them made it seem like Mr Trump’s tweets were really popular. Similarly, they can be used for all kinds of other topics.

Consider these Russian bots for example, that tried to sway public narrative on the murder of a journalist back in 2015.

Number 5 is the catch!

Now, the fifth step is the interesting one. Considering everything we discussed, we can have a situation where virtually any piece of false information can circulate and be repeated en masse on the internet. It is in the public sphere and all the people who support it, as well as the bots and trolls and some unassuming readers start repeating it as well.

A social media environment emerges in which unconnected sources seemingly give credence to the same story by repeating it.

Whether the story comes from Breitbart or InfoWars or 4chan isn’t important anymore, because it comes from everywhere. Until… journalists from newspapers or news networks find it and report on the story that is seemingly already out there. This is how these pieces of false information make it into the mainstream news media and, thus, become fake news.

Why this is alarming to companies and should be to anyone

Today, the public discourse of our world is organised by algorithms, search engines and a staccato of rapidly emerging stories. News organisations pay fewer journalists to do more work and time for investigating the information that floods our screens is short. The 2016 election proved that today it is possible to subvert public discourse using technological means on a grand scale.

The question is now, will this become normal soon?

After all, the same bot network that helped Trump win his election actually targeted Emmanuel Macron during the recent election in France. So it is perfectly possible to use similar means to target anyone.

What if the fake news are about your company for example?

This makes it especially important that we try to solve this problem sooner rather than later. How we can do that is not clear as of yet. In Germany, for example, a law has been passed that will try to censor hate speech on Facebook. Meanwhile, Bloomberg wants to partner with Twitter in order to fact-check current topics, like their COO Jacki Kelley told us at Global Female Leaders 2017. (Watch the interview, it’s well worth listening to!)

What is the actual best way to combat this problem? We don’t know yet. But we hope we will in the future!

Jacki Kelley on Bloomberg’s partnership with Twitter.

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