Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will have seen a lot on the news recently about…..fake news.
It’s not a new phenomenon. Newspapers and magazines in the nineteenth century, and no doubt before that, were often accused of inventing stories to attract new readers.
Fake news or propaganda was also rife in the newspapers and on the newsreels from WW1 right up to the Cold War as governments tried every trick in the book to influence the public at home and demonise the enemy abroad.
But, fake news has had a resurgence in the last year or two with masses of stories going viral and making headlines right around the world.
The biggest change from what was once perceived as fake news to the phenomenon we are seeing today, is that where it used to be governments pushing fake news now anyone with a WordPress site together with a Facebook or Twitter account can climb aboard the bandwagon.
There is no doubt the age of social media makes it so much easier to distribute and access fake news.
What is fake news?
Basically, a fake news story is an article presented as fact, by a seemingly reputable website, but is actually written to deceive and is, unsurprisingly, completely fake. They are usually characterised by sensational headlines designed to draw the user in and take advantage of the interest in current political or world events.
Each item of fake news is widely publicised on social media to gain shares and follows which attract readers to the website which originally published the article.
These websites are designed to look like mainstream news sites such as CNN and the BBC to present an image of authority. The end game is to profit from internet advertising which pays the owner of the website every time the ad is clicked by a visitor.
Hence the massive surge of false stories during the 2016 US presidential election when a small town in Macedonia became the fake news capital of the world bagging thousands of dollars for its teenage webmasters.
What isn’t fake news?
This is where the waters can become a little murky. What is the difference between a deliberately fake news piece and a satirical article on humorous websites like The Onion?
In essence there appears to be little difference. Both fake and satirical news stories are completely made up and are often based on current events. It could also be argued that both genres of story have the same aim; to generate revenue from advertising.
What does distinguish satirical sites such as The Onion and Clickhole from fake news is the way they use humour and also publish stories on every subject under the sun not just politics or celebrity gossip. You won’t find many articles about tea bags in the office on a fake news site.
Most people will also be aware that the articles on satirical sites are exactly that – satire. Unfortunately, many readers do take them at face value, no matter how outlandish and nonsensical the story. They then share the article on social media expressing outrage or agreement and the whole bandwagon starts to roll again.
Why do websites push fake news?
Leaving aside satirical sites, and honestly, you really should be able to tell them apart, fake news sites do have different agendas. For some, it may be a crusade, no matter how well-intentioned or misguided, for others it is simply an exercise in profit.
As I’ve already mentioned the US presidential election saw a whole slew of fake news sites coming to the fore with dozens of stories emerging every day. The most famous example was the one in which Donald Trump was said to have slapped a protestor at one of his rallies.
The story, which was completely false, went viral and sparked a massive backlash from people who took it at face value. It also turned into a nice cash cow for the webmaster who created the story.
There can be consequences
Another fake news item to come out of the election almost had fatal consequences. A man opened fire in a pizza restaurant after reading fake news and conspiracy theories that it was the headquarters of a Democrat paedophile ring.
Fortunately, no-one was hurt but Pizzagate was an extreme example of the reaction which fake news can generate because of the power and reach of the internet and social media.
What are Google and Facebook doing?
Each of the online giants has reacted to try and slow down the spread of fake news. Facebook announced an ‘education campaign’ whilst Google have rolled out a fact check feature which highlights authoritative sources in search results.
It should be noted though that Google’s new feature will not impact on search engine rankings and nor will it highlight fake news sites as untrustworthy.
A bigger change by Google, and one which had instant results, was to ban the Adsense accounts of fake news publishers. Without the possibility of profiting from advertising revenue many fake news sites simply shut down.
This reduced the flow of fake news virtually overnight but Google won’t be able to police every site and others still remain. And, of course, the lack of advertising revenue will not affect those fake news sites which exist only to pump out propaganda supporting their own cause or seeking to undermine others.
Will fake news ever go away?
Unlikely. Especially as governments are now becoming involved again with cyber campaigns to push propaganda or to (allegedly) influence elections.
Also, no matter how smart or sharp the algorithms employed by search engines and social media sites, the sheer volume of material, together with peoples willingness to share before questioning, is simply overwhelming.
One of the issues we have is the trust we place in the results generated by search engines. Whilst Google itself may even acknowledge search isn’t perfect most of its users believe the opposite. The old adage ‘don’t believe everything you read’ has never been so apposite.
Finally, perhaps ironically, If you Google, ‘What is fake news,’ the information box at the top of the page contains a snippet from Wikipedia. Perhaps not the most reliable or trustworthy source of information though undoubtedly one of the most voluminous.