When I started this article, I had a few questions and some provocative issues I wanted to present. However, as I started writing, and writing usually has a life of itself, it started to appear several other questions and issues I felt I had to address. As a result, the article became too long and it is now going to be published in three parts (“Anatomy of disinformation and fake news”, “How we made it to this point and the role of online platforms”, and “Why and how we should regulate social media and criminalize fake news”). Each part can be read independently, but to understand the whole and to connect all the ideas, you should read all three.
1. Anatomy of disinformation and fake news
Disinformation, according to Merriam-Webster is “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”, many times by governments or entities with vested interests. And misinformation, according to Dictionary.com, is “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”. In other words, it is false or inaccurate information usually created by someone who intended to deceive and it is spread by people who believe in it but did not create it. Both are harmful to a healthy society and the cause of most of our societal issues in the past decade since social media became part of our everyday life. This article will consider fake news and disinformation. If there is no disinformation and fake news, misinformation will not occur.
At the heart of disinformation is the fake news. According to Dictionary.com: “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared online for the purpose of generating ad revenue via web traffic or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc”.) — text written in a journalistic style published usually by non-mainstream or non-credible sources, sometimes without an author, and without connections to any source for verification that elicit an emotional response. Entities and individuals who create and promote fakes news had the clear intent of misinforming their followers. Usually, websites that promote fake news don’t have a editors/staff list, articles have no author, and there are no sources to be verified. Quite frequently, these publications are connected to fringe groups, who use it to promote their ideas and they constantly attack the mainstream media as not trustworthy or that these media try to silence them. These websites don’t have a set of values or commitments like, for example, Thomson Reuters, which has their Trust Principles published and easy to find.
Mainstream media are still the most trustworthy source of information, despite all its flaws and occasional mistakes. Entities and persons connected to and involved with spreading fake news constantly try to discredit mainstream media, portraying themselves as the only source for credible information. Not true, but the users, with their emotional response activated, tend to believe it. That includes elected officials and some newscasters in some television channels. That’s not to say that mainstream media is not infallible: they make mistakes occasionally, they publish unverified information, but when they do they correct it as soon as possible and they can be and are held accountable in court. There are plenty of laws professional journalists need to follow in their practices in contrast to the very few shield laws they have. According to Wikipedia: “A shield law is law that gives reporters protection against being forced to disclose confidential information or sources in state court (…) As of 2011, 49 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of protections Forty states (plus D.C.) have passed shield laws. These laws vary from state to state.”
Mainstream media also have advertising contracts with big brands and subscription customers they cannot disregard: their survivability depends on trust and they must follow strict trust and credibility guidelines. Some fake news sources receive funds from solo investors, some controversial investors, and have advertising contracts with groups and entities that spouse what they publish. Sometimes, they have regular ad contracts but we have seen in the recent past many large advertisers canceling contracts with groups that promoted views in disagreement with the brand’s views. We will see this type of contract cancellation more often as we advance in our understanding of what happened and who is connected to the coup attempt by the ex-president in the United States past January 6th.
People who are receiving fake news as their main or only source of information start to believe in these altered and incorrect perspectives as true. For example, insane conspiracy theories, like the ones spread by QAnon and the belief the coronavirus was created in a lab to control people, just to mention a few. The excellent and complete NPR article ‘Even If It’s ‘Bonkers,’ Poll Finds Many Believe QAnon And Other Conspiracy Theories ‘ by Joel Rose states: “Pollsters say that multiple factors make people more or less susceptible to misinformation — including educational attainment, media consumption, and political affiliation — and that people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that fit into their worldview.” Besides, consuming and believing fake news occurs to people on all spectrum of political beliefs, but fake news seems to be more frequently associated with themes promoted by conservative and ultra-right groups — “For example, almost half of respondents said that the majority of racial justice protests over the summer were violent, when in fact the vast majority were peaceful. Poll respondents from all demographics answered this question incorrectly — but they were even more likely to do so if they were Republicans and if they got their news from Fox News or conservative online outlets like Breitbart or the Daily Caller.”
However, despite the damage fake news (and disinformation) may cause, it is reasonably easy to spot if you are educated on their characteristics. Yet many choose to ignore the main telltales of a fake news post, mostly led by the emotional response and the addictive behavior the social media enacts on its users, as many studies and the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” explain so completely. Digital media literacy should be part of the curricula in high schools and part of the general education credit requirements in colleges/universities and should also be regularly promoted by social media platforms as part of their efforts to curb disinformation and misinformation.
According to the study “The spread of true and false news online” by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral, published in 2018, fake news spread 6% faster than true news due to the enhanced emotional content and the consequent response it generates in the users. They say: ”False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.” Another issue may play a part in the spread of fake news: regular media usually charges access to their websites, while sources dedicated to create and spread fake news are usually free (they are funded by persons or entities who directly or indirectly benefit from the fake news they promote). Someone who may have checked fake news for veracity may have been discouraged by this barrier, but still, share the fake news. Check for more information about fake news, its damage, and how it spreads on the Center for Humane Technology page “Ledger of Harms”.
To help people recognize fake news, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), https://www.ifla.org/, published a list of their main characteristics. Below, a summary of its main points:
1. Consider the source — which publication is it? It is well known or is it a fringe publication? Try to understand what its purpose is and see if there is a mission statement. Read carefully, google it.
2. Don’t read just the headline. Read one or two paragraphs to understand the story. Does it make sense? Does the text have grammar mistakes? Is it coherent or jumps from one idea to another without a clear connection?
3. Check the author. Is there an author? Is he/she a professional journalist? Who is this person? Google his/her name.
4. Check the article’s sources. Does it match? Is it correct? Is the source respectable or authority in its area? Is the mention accurate? Is it partial? If partial, is it within the context of the source? Google the sources, if any.
5. When was it published? Check the date and if it is relevant and up to date.
6. Is it a satire, a joke? Can it be understood by an average person?
7. Check yourself: are your biases blocking a fair judgment?
8. Check with experts and Google the main idea. What do the results tell you? Has the article been debunked on Snopes or other similar sites? Does that include a public figure? Google the person and the main idea in the text.
Some types of fake news include Clickbait, Propaganda, Satire/parody, Sloppy journalism, Misleading headings, Manipulation, Rumor Mill, Misinformation, Media Bias, Audience Bias, and Content farm. A description of each one can be found at the Mississippi State University Libraries website. You can check much news utilizing this comprehensive toolkit created by the First Draft.
Want to understand and learn even more about how to spot fake news? Check the article “Fake News. It’s complicated” by Claire Wardle and the work done by First Draft, an entity dedicated to fighting online fake news and misinformation.