Fake, and increasingly dangerous

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 26/12/2016
An alarming proliferation of fake news that managed to outstrip fact-based news, threatens to topple the credibility of the media
SHUMA RAHA on 2016’s biggest media menace


Last week a story that appeared on a news website called AWD was headlined “Israeli Defence Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack”.

The story was fake. But before that came to light, an infuriated Pakistan had already reacted to it. Its Defence Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif responded with a warning to Israel on Twitter that “Pakistan was a nuclear state too.”

This dangerous piece of misinformation capped a year that saw an alarming proliferation of fake news. Driven in large part by the US presidential campaign, fake news sites cropped up all over the internet. They peddled flat out lies that masqueraded as news. And no matter how outrageous the fiction, millions swallowed them and shared them on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

So much so that fact-checking website Politifact has named “fake news” the Lie of the Year. The annual honour, or rather, the dishonour, usually goes to the most shocking misrepresentation of fact in the public domain. This time fake news and the lies it spawned dwarfed every other example of distortion of facts.

In many cases, the fakery went viral. In many cases, they outstripped the reach and influence of news that’s built on facts. A recent Buzzfeed survey has found that in the three months leading up to the US elections, the 20 top performing fake stories generated 8.71 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook while the figure for the 20 top stories from major news publishers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and others was 7.36 million.

In view of the amount of fake news generated during the US election campaign, the German government is now planning to set up a centre of defence against disinformation ahead of its own elections next year. The centre would “educate” groups susceptible to fake news, especially “Russian-Germans” and “Turkish-speaking people”. German lawmakers have already called for stiff penalties on social media platforms that do not remove content found to be fake.


"In view of the amount of fake news generated during the US election campaign, the German government is now planning to set up a centre of defence against disinformation ahead of its own elections next year. "


Take a look at some of the biggest fake news stories of 2016. There were reports that said Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were running a child sex trafficking ring from a pizza shop; that Clinton had funded the ISIS; that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump; that the Democrats in Florida wanted to bring in the Sharia law.

Early this month a gunman showed up at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington and fired a few shots. (There were no fatalities.) It was the place from where Hillary Clinton and John Podesta supposedly ran their child sex ring, a wild allegation that was circulated by millions of Clinton trolls in the run-up to the elections. The gunman said later that he wanted to “self-investigate” the scene of the alleged crime.

But it’s not just the US elections where fake news had a field day. In January this year a fake news story claimed that a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin had been abducted and raped  by a Muslim refugee in Berlin. Widely shared on social media and reported by the Russian media, the fabricated news prompted hundreds to take to the streets to protest against the “attack”, including, needless to say,  alt-right and anti-Islam groups. Russia even alleged that Angela Merkel’s government was trying to cover up the crime.

India has also been witness to the power of fake news and the unquestioning way in which people accept it as truth. What’s remarkable is that here, it’s not dodgy websites, but parts of the mainstream media that have put out the lies.

Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation announcement, television channel Zee News reported — in all seriousness — that the new Rs 2000 currency note would have an embedded nano GPS chip that would allow the notes to be tracked via satellite. Legions of fans of the government’s decision to demonetise triumphantly shared the bogus news until the Reserve Bank of India admitted that it was totally false.

News agency ANI too came up with its own two pennies’ worth of fake news when it propped up one of its own staff as a customer who praised a tea seller for accepting digital payments. Thankfully, social media soon outed the report as a fake.

One fallout of the primacy fake news enjoyed in 2016 is that social media — the platform on which it spreads like wildfire — is now coming under scrutiny. In fact, some say that the avalanche of fake news on Facebook could have swayed the US elections in favour of Donald Trump.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismisses that theory as “a pretty crazy idea”. Yet, there is little doubt that fake news, and the gleeful credulity with which people embrace it, is having a profound impact on what is considered to be news. Increasingly, the lines between fact-based news and falsehoods are being blurred. And that is bound to have consequences in the real world.


"This time the lies were scaled up to gargantuan proportions, thanks to the ease and speed with which they spread on Facebook or showed up on Google auto fill suggestions."


To be sure, propaganda, distortion of facts and conspiracy theories have always had their makers and takers. Politicians make a habit of twisting facts and spinning narratives that skim the truth. But it was different this year. This time the lies were scaled up to gargantuan proportions, thanks to the ease and speed with which they spread on Facebook or showed up on Google auto fill suggestions.

With its 1.8 billion users, Facebook is the biggest online hub in the world. What’s more, many of its users get their news here. So a sensational piece of bogus, hyper-partisan news landing on Facebook gets thousands, sometimes millions, of shares and reposts, generating traffic for both the fake news creator as well as Facebook.

For the fake news creator, the greater the traffic to his website, the higher the revenue from the automated ads on his site. Jestin Coler, who runs a number of fake news operations from a Los Angeles suburb, admitted to NPR last month that fake news was a lucrative business. Coler said that he makes between $10,000 to $30,000 a month from online ads.

Indeed, wherever they operate from, hawkers of fake news know there is money to be made by putting out sensational (and untrue) stories that people will click on and circulate. A computer student in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, who started a pro-Trump fake news site because he found people “engaged” with stories favouring Trump much more than those in support of Clinton, told The New York Times that in a good month, he made about $6000.


"For the fake news creator, the greater the traffic to his website, the higher the revenue from the automated ads on his site. "


Today, it is not just mainstream media that is bemoaning the rise and spread of fake news. Researchers and academics are also voicing their concern that it is damaging the institution of the press, one of the pillars of democracy, whose job it is to report facts and expose phony claims. 

Addressing a news conference in Berlin last month, US President Barack Obama too weighed in on the issue. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not … if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” he said.

Following the barrage of criticism for its role in driving fake news, Facebook is now rolling out measures to flag content that may be false. Users can flag a post as fake news and if it receives enough number of such flags, it will be examined by third party fact-checkers like Snopes, Politifact, FactCheck.org and so on. If the content is deemed false, it will carry a “disputed” label and may show lower down in a user’s news feed.

Moreover, fake news sites will no longer be able to display Facebook ads on their pages and profit from them.

Google too has moved to block its automated ads on fake news sites. Last week it also announced that it would tweak its search algorithm after there were reports that some of its search responses directed the user to racist, anti-Semitic or hate-filled sites. For instance, one of the auto-fill suggestions for the query "are Jews" was "are Jews evil?”

Will the fake news phenomenon continue to grow in 2017? It’s hard to tell. True, there won’t be a US Presidential campaign, nor a deeply polarising candidate like Donald Trump, to fuel it. And yes, both Facebook and Google are making an effort to restrict fake news by trying to make it less profitable for its purveyors.

But if enough people only want news that chimes in with their views, made-up information can continue to flourish online. There are concerns in France already that the French presidential elections next year could see a torrent of fake news similar to the kind witnessed during the run-up to the US elections in 2016.

Besides, as fake news creator Coler said in his interview to NPR, “We have several advertisers. Google was one, although they shut down my account last week. We've replaced them with other advertisers.”

If that claim is not fake, then we should be afraid.


Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

Twitter: @ShumaRaha




The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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