The nexus of fake news and social networks
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On 21 February 1814, a man calling himself “Colonel du Bourg” turned up in Dover, England, claiming he had just arrived from Calais—with news that Napoleon Bonaparte was dead and that peace was imminent. His companions, dressed as French officers, distributed pamphlets attesting to Bonaparte’s death. British government securities rose rapidly in value—and more than £1.1 million worth of them, most purchased the week before, were sold off.
The spiritual descendants of the perpetrators of the Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 are alive and well. These days, they are the Macedonian teenagers who turned publishing fake news stories related to the US presidential election into a cottage industry. Or social network consumers who pass on such links indiscriminately. Little wonder Facebook was compelled to announce a number of initiatives to combat fake news last week—the issue du jour in the increasingly common overlap of technology and politics.
In the aftermath of the election, Mark Zuckerberg denied that fake news stories about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton disseminated, among other networks, by Facebook, had anything to do with the results. Indeed, it would be reductive to attribute an outsize responsibility for the election result to these stories. But it would be equally short-sighted to deny that they have highlighted a current and future problem with social media and the manner in which people consume news. With everyone from US President Barack Obama to Clinton taking aim at the problem, Zuckerberg was left with little wriggle room.
This is an old problem in a new avatar. The absurd conspiracy theory that John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chief—and for that matter, Clinton herself—were linked to a child sex trafficking ring run out of a Washington, DC restaurant calls to mind nothing so much as the rumours and false news of blood libel used to persecute Jews through the centuries. The fake stories claiming that Pope Francis had officially endorsed Trump may as well have been emulating the relações de sucessos—the fake news pamphlets claiming divine intercession was responsible for some of the survivors of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake—that Jacob Soll writes about at Politico.
Then, the problem was the lack of fact-based objective news disseminated by official sources. The problem now is an overabundance of news and sources that makes it difficult to ascertain reliability. This is heightened by the way social media networks—increasingly the primary filter via which people obtain news—function, with algorithms that populate news feeds based on past clicks and the natural tendency to cluster on these networks with like-minded individuals. This enables confirmation bias and the conjunction fallacy to work in tandem. The former is the tendency to favour information that confirms one’s existing opinions. The latter means that individuals are more prone to believing fake stories that have more specifics, no matter that the details taken individually are absurd. The upshot is that individuals increasingly consume news within echo chambers that make perspective and balance difficult.
There is no clear or easy solution to this. Facebook has now partnered with organizations that have signed on to the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. These organizations will verify flagged links on Facebook and attach fact checks accessible by anyone to them. But there are several points to keep in mind here. First, this raises the question of bias and interpretation. It would be naive to expect the fact-checkers to uniformly possess an unimpeachable sense of objectivity and impartiality. Their personal biases are bound to colour the manner in which they check and interpret stories to some extent. Second, this raises the spectre of censorship wherein news stories may be flagged unjustly. Third, given the prevailing mood in much of the developed world—and beyond it, for that matter—that the establishment and mainstream media are not to be trusted, it remains to be seen if flagging and fact-checking articles will in fact deter people from believing fake news or instead lend it a perverse credibility.
This is a problem that will only grow in relevance globally. India is no exception. Facebook’s user base in the country is hovering around the 200 million mark; both it and the number of smartphone users are set to grow rapidly. And there are other avenues for fake news, primarily WhatsApp. The government’s ongoing currency-swap initiative has birthed any number of such stories. The manner in which the “news” that the new Rs2,000 notes were embedded with a GPS chip made it from WhatsApp to some television channels, for instance, was as absurd as anything seen during the US election.
It is not our contention that traditional media should be put on a pedestal. It has had its own learning curve. After all, flamboyant purveyor of yellow journalism William Randolph Hearst—who famously told his Havana correspondent in the 1890s, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war,” and got his wish, the Spanish-American war, on the back of fake pictures—was a newspaper publisher. But, as the traditional news industry had to do before them, the new entrants must now learn in the school of hard knocks about editorial responsibility and the difficulties therein.
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