Fake News – The Facts

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Andy Cormack this week looks at another internet hot potato – the rise and rise of the phenomenon known as Fake News.  

Andy looks at how this state of affairs has arisen in recent times, why it is so prominent, and what is being done across the globe to combat it.

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“Fake news”, is a term that has risen greatly in popularity since Donald Trump used it in January of this year, when he declared loudly “You are fake news!”, whilst pointing at Jim Acosta from CNN instead of answering his question.  The catchall phrase has now permeated just about every facet of the media.

Trump has since used the term so much, that it has almost lost all meaning, calling anything ‘fake news’ nthat he doesn’t agree with, whether it is correct or not.  I suppose “start as you mean to go on” is a phrase he’s intimately familiar with, but then again, unless Fox News has said it, it’s doubtful he even knows the phrase exists.

Graph showing Google’s search trend for “fake news” between October 2016 and June 2017

The question you may ask, however, is where the term originated, and how far back have people used such “fake news” as a means to misdirect and misinform the populace, in order to manipulate their votes and/or actions.

Falsum Nuntium – the history of Fake News

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to most people that this kind of manipulation and misinformation is very far from new, dating back to ancient times.

One such example is The Final War of the Roman Republic, a period in ancient Roman history in which the Roman Senate declared war upon the current ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra, because Mark Antony (one of the major political figures in Rome at the time) had been having an affair with her whilst being married to Octavia Minor, sister of Octavian (Caesar’s principal heir and another major political figure). The lovers set up a political act called the “Donations of Alexandria”, which they had concocted in order to distribute lands held by Rome favourably amongst Cleopatra’s children. This lead to Octavian seizing this perfect opportunity to gain political favour by outing Antony, immediately launching a propaganda campaign to ruin his reputation.

Shortly after Octavian brought the war to a close, he gained control of Egypt. By 27 BC, Augustus was named the new Pharoah by the Roman Senate, gaining even more power. He then used this power to transform what was then the republic of Rome into the Roman Empire, effectively ruling as the first Roman emperor. Whilst in this position, he famously spread many falsehoods about himself, painting him in a flattering and youthful light, maintaining this image all the way into his old age.

There are of course many other examples throughout history, Procopius, commonly referred to as the last scholar of the ancient western world, spread false rumours about Emperor Justinian, despite giving him great credit and celebrity in his main writings in the 6th century. Then, there’s the election manipulation attempt by Pietro Aretino in 1522 in which he wrote scathing sonnets about all the candidates, except the one favoured by his patrons, and proceeded to post them up on the bust of Pasquino in Rome for the public to read.  This eventually developed into an entire genre of softening mostly fake, unpleasant news about public figures.

Moving towards more modern times, a pertinent example would be that of the 1828 presidential election of the United States, in which rumours were spread about John Quincy Adams that lead to the successful election of his opponent, Andrew Jackson.

More recent still, and those with the inclination can now generate propaganda reaching potentially millions of people, facilitated by the invention of various forms of mass communication. Everything from newspapers, to radios, to televisions, and, of course, in a more contemporary context, the internet. Some examples of its uses were that of the rise to power of the Nazi party in the 1930s, spreading stereotypes and discrimination against Jews across the nation, as well as the government lead propaganda of countries during World War 2, consisting of posters, radio broadcasts, and television adverts, in order to motivate their respective nations in dark times. A famous example of this is the Donald Duck cartoons centred around the Nazis made during World War 2.

The internet and present day

Now that some grander context can be seen about a subject that has a far longer history than some might imagine, we arrive in the present. We arrive in a world filled with articles of questionable validity and/or morals. This rising trend in fake news is vastly different from that of the state controlled propaganda of the 20th century, untethered from the limitations and narrows scopes that whole governments or nations would use such misinformation for, there is much greatest potential than ever to spread lies and slander for anyone’s potential benefit, employed most notably in recent times during Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Propaganda and fake news on the internet do share similarities however, both having the same goals in mind, even if their methods and approaches differ; that is to muddy the waters and bend the truth for the purposes of swaying the hearts and minds of people, in order that an attempt is made to make them think about something, or someone, in a particular way. While these actions may appear to be political in nature, and perhaps some were, at least partially, a vast majority of relevant content creators were more likely looking for easy money brought in by headlines and what is known colloquially as ‘clickbait’, that would gain an audience and thus, generate advertising revenue.

Prior to the internet, methods for making money from lies and misinformation were much more difficult, building and maintaining a loyal following of readers, not to mention the distribution costs of this information, made it prohibitively difficult to employ such disinformation on a significant enough scale to make a return on investment. Also, because of the expensive nature of this distribution, there were far fewer companies that could even do it, and all were regulated by media laws – a problem that no longer exists when such laws don’t really apply to individuals, especially on social media when content can spread virally.

With the invention of popular social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, the cost and distribution issues involved were reduced to the point of almost non-existence. Hosting a WordPress website and distributing the contents of the posts via social media meant that one could invest very little time and money for a much greater gain than had been previously possible. On top of this, information on the internet is largely unregulated, and for obvious reasons, the sheer amount that is written and published on the internet today is so vast, that there is no reasonable way to regulate it in any kind of meaningful manner.  This effectively removes the only other issue before the internet and opening the door to the infinite possibilities of free and unregulated distribution of ‘fake news’ for monetary and/or political gain.

In specific relation to the 2016 US Presidential Election, now that the modern internet has paved the way for much freer distribution of information, fake or not, it has also helped pave the way for the propaganda machine that led to Donald Trump’s election.

James Carson of The Telegraph had this to say about the matter.  “With the economic barriers removed, 2016 proved a much more fertile breeding ground for fake news than previously, with the narrative of the 2016 election campaign providing a near perfect topical backdrop. The event would be discussed globally, while the debate was polarised in numerous ways, allowing for greater polemic against either candidate.”

“Donald Trump has been seen as a key ingredient. His campaign waved an anti-establishment banner, undermining the “dynasty” candidate Hillary Clinton by repeatedly calling her “crooked”, and proclaiming that he wanted to “drain the swamp” of Washington.”

“He also courted conspiracy theories. Initially he suggested Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK, perpetuated the myth of Obama not being born in the United States (which he later conceded) and repeatedly claimed climate change as a hoax. Such a wildcard candidate attracted massive media attention, itself fueled by a series of controversial policy suggestions – like building a border wall between Mexico and the US or ‘a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.’ “

With the results of the 2016 Presidential Campaign, a large number of people levelled heavy criticism at major social networks, blaming the way that they are designed to show the user more similar content to their interests, sometimes termed the “Filter Bubble”, thus creating an artificial, biased vacuum of a worldview for each user, customised to their browsing histories and interactions on those sites. Such critics claim that the result of this design can be likened to a distorted playing field for information, leading to the most controversial or outrageous stories rising to the top of the social news relevancy pile.

All this being said, despite the number of fingers pointed at the biggest social media sites, there is still a largely unknown overall influence that social media has on people’s political views. The often thrown around figures that 62% of Americans use social networks and that 44% use predominantly Facebook, are just that, figures – numbers that are used to imply bias and susceptibility, but the reality is that we have no real data on any correlation between the two.

In fact, a study by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University entitled Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election reasons that, “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.”

In closing, I’ll leave you with this from The New York Review of Books

“Although news of this sort could whip up public opinion, sophisticates knew better than to take it literally. Most of it was fake, sometimes openly so. A footnote to a scandalous item in Le Gazetier cuirassé read: “Half of this article is true.” It was up to the reader to decide which half.”

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