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Fact or fiction? Behind the rise of fake news

We’re at war.

Like it or not – and most of us don’t – we’ve become embroiled in a murky “fake news” propaganda conflict aimed at controlling our opinions and our choices.

It’s most prevalent in our social media feeds, including Facebook and Twitter, and few of us stop to question the headlines:

“Las Vegas Shooter a Democrat Associated with Anti-Trump Army.” “Money spent on NZ flag referendum could solve child poverty”.

We’re not safe even if we avoid social media because, according to Vox.com, search engines including Google help to spread this type of misinformation.

Fake news stories have circulated since Ramesses the Great ordered them to be chiselled into rock 3300 years ago.

But these days they are spread around the world so quickly, via social media, that their influence has become increasingly pervasive and their presence so fleeting as to avoid careful scrutiny. And because these stories are shared with us by friends and family – rather than directed at us by the original source – we tend to accept them as trustworthy.

Fake news has become an especially hot topic since the election of Donald Trump, with dictionary publisher Collins going so far as to name it the phrase of the year for 2017.

But is fake news really something we need to care about? In short, yes, we should. Fake news is influencing aspects of our lives as important as our political viewpoints, our relationships with the environment and our life expectancies.

What is fake news?

Broadly speaking, fake news is the dissemination of falsehoods disguised as truth.

A producer of CBS’s 60 Minutes programme, Michael Radutzky, defines it more specifically as "stories that are provably false, have enormous traction in culture, and are consumed by millions of people". In other words, fake news creates a misinformed public, fostering societal pressure on politicians to enact policies against the public interest.

It can also undermine the legitimacy of “real” news stories. Adding to this problem is a general 21st Century decline in journalistic standards that has weakened the ability of news outlets to subject their information sources to effective scrutiny.

With this in mind, Snopes founder David Mikkelson warns that fake news is “a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon which encompasses many forms of shoddy, unresearched, error-filled and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone”.

Since his election, Trump has turned “fake news” into a catchphrase – and the evidence suggests that he does have good reason to be obsessed with the issue.

One Buzzfeed study of Facebook posts found that the top 20 fake news stories about the election received more engagement than the top 20 “real” stories.

However, Trump is wrong when he claims to be a victim of the phenomenon. On the contrary, he is a major beneficiary of fake news. Many pro-Trump stories during the election were written by hundreds of teenagers employed by seven organisations in the small Macedonian city of Veles.

Behind the fake news

One of the teenagers in Veles, named Goran, told the BBC how he got involved.

He started by plagiarising stories from right-wing American sites and posting them on Facebook with sensationalist headlines. He paid Facebook to “boost” these posts, sharing them with a large US audience hungry for Trump stories.

When those people shared the stories and clicked on their “like” buttons, Goran began earning revenue from associated advertising. According to Goran, he pocketed 1800 Euros ($3000) in one month.

When questioned about the morality of his actions, Goran said, "Teenagers in our city don't care how Americans vote – they are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks”.

Goran’s case is an example of fake news stemming from opportunism, but it can also be the result of political propaganda campaigns organised at state level.

The US intelligence community has concluded that it is “confident” that Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to “undermine faith in the US democratic process” and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the US election. The campaign included hacking Clinton’s emails and disseminating fake news about her on social media.

According to The Guardian, thousands of paid Russian trolls were among the most strident Trump promoters on the internet before the election.

What are the effects?

Influencing election results is just one of many effects of fake news.

According to several researchers, fake news is swaying public opinion in fields as important as climate change, gun control, religion, warfare, and international relations.

However, fake news is possibly most damaging in the field of health care.

“There’s more bad health news out there than there is in any other category,” Poynter Institute vice president Kelly McBride told The Atlantic.

McBride wasn’t just talking about bogus claims for reversing wrinkles and whitening teeth.

It seems like every second day we see stories about alcohol being good for the heart, or bad for the heart. Or coffee being healthy, or not. Or butter being healthier than margarine, or vice versa.

According to McBride, public relations spin-doctors are only partly to blame for this barrage of contradictory information. After all, it’s their job to tout the supposed benefits of their clients’ food and healthcare products at the expense of their competitors’.

The main problem is the gullibility of journalists, who are overly prone to taking the bait.

One classic domestic example was a notorious front-page splash in the New Zealand Herald in 1999 that touted an extract from South Island green-lipped mussels as being the cure for cancer.

The extract hit shelves just two days after the story was published, prompting Prime Minister Jenny Shipley to condemn the story as the spurious product of an orchestrated PR campaign.

In other words, it was fake news.

False Balance

A tiny minority of scientists dispute the existence of global warming, but are often given as much airtime as the majority who agree it's happening. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Related to the issue of fake news is false balance, a type of media bias in which undue weight is given to particular viewpoints.

This does not necessarily arise from a deliberate attempt by the media to mislead – in fact, quite the opposite. It often stems from a journalist’s desire to “balance” a story by offering multiple opinions on a subject.

The problem is that the act of publishing an opinion tends to give it credence, and not all opinions deserve this.

One striking example of false balance surrounds the debate on global warming.

Although the great majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring, and that it is a result of industrial activity, a tiny minority of scientists dispute this conclusion.

Some news outlets provide significant coverage of the dissenting viewpoint in their reporting of the issue.

In other words, these news outlets are likening fair coverage with equal coverage, in a situation where this may not be warranted.

Anatomy of a Fake News Report

Italian MP Maria Elena Boschi was ridiculed after a photograph circulated on social media showing her underwear exposed during her swearing-in ceremony.

And it wasn’t just Boschi who suffered – her resemblance to Melania Trump meant that the US first lady was also lampooned.

The social media post drew attention not just to Boschi’s underwear, but also to her blue suit. This was criticised as a colour “unknown in nature”, similar to the costume of “a Marvel superhero like Captain America”, and so tight that “many were reminded of Pippa Middleton’s silhouette”.

According to fact-checking website Snopes, the underwear was inserted into the image by someone possessing photograph editing software and an apparent grudge against women in government.

The website provided before-and-after images to support its case.

Fake news reports on fake news

One of the most celebrated cases of fake news is the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of an adaption of HG Wells’s science fiction novel The War of the Worlds.

According to myth – and numerous mainstream news reports – the gripping fake newscast about an alien invasion was so realistic it created mass hysteria across the United States.

A front-page headline in the New York Times, for example, declared, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”.

Other newspapers reported outbreaks of “weeping and hysterical women”, that a man found his wife preparing to kill herself with a bottle of poison, and another man had volunteered to fight the Martian invaders.

But just how real was the panic?

According to US communications professor W Joseph Campbell, the coverage was “almost entirely anecdotal”, and “largely based on sketch wire service roundups that emphasised breadth over in-depth detail”.

Campbell concluded that the notion that the radio show created a national panic was a media-driven myth.

How to spot fake news

So how can we arm ourselves against these stories?

Unfortunately, fake news can be extremely hard to identify. Research has found that most people struggle to spot it even when they are highly knowledgeable about the topic being “reported” on.

One study, by Yale University researchers David Rand and Gord Pennycook, found that people are more likely to believe a fake news story when they have been exposed to it previously.

This is because such stories make a subtle impression each time they are encountered, with familiarity creating an illusion of truth.

The implication is that it is important to assess news as fake – or otherwise – when we first encounter it, rather than wait until it has influenced our mindset.

Although there is no guaranteed method of spotting fake news, the following points have been suggested by experts in the field:

- Consider the source

- Click to find the source of the story. Is it from a legitimate news outlet?

- Read beyond

- Headlines don’t always portray stories accurately. Make sure you read the body of the text.

- Supporting sources

- Click on any links in the story. Is the story supported by verifiable facts?

- Check the date

- Sometimes old stories get recirculated even when they’re no longer relevant.

- Is it a joke?

- If it’s too outlandish, it might be satire. Remember Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver?

- Check your biases

- Consider how your own beliefs could affect your judgement.

- Ask the experts

- Consult other sources, such as fact-checking websites.

- Check the author

- Do a quick search on the authors. Are they credible? Are they real?

Sources: FactCheck.org, International Federation of Library Associations

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