EDITION: February - April 2017

Fake News and the Search for the Truth

By Jerry Brownstein
It is becoming more and more difficult to know where to find the truth about what is happening in the world. The prestigious Oxford Dictionaries highlighted this problem by selecting as their word of the year for 2016  “post-truth”. This is defined as “a state of affairs where objective facts are less important in shaping public opinion, and people rely more on emotional appeals and personal beliefs.” What they are confirming is that we live in a society where we can’t agree on basic facts... or even agree that there are such things as facts! We have lost faith in the traditional sources of truth, so we have turned to alternatives... mostly on the internet... but this has spawned the most glaring fault of the post-truth era... ‘Fake News’. This is ‘news’ that is completely made up with no real basis, but it is manipulated to make it look like credible journalistic reporting. These false stories are posted online through social media sites like Facebook. Many people innocently believe these fictions and they spread this false news to others. How did we get to this point and what can be done about it?

 
Honest and diligent journalism is one of the pillars of a free society. It has a crucial role to play in holding government leaders accountable, publicizing issues that need attention, and educating citizens so they can make informed decisions. The majority of people used to get their news from television or newspapers, and they felt confident that most of what they heard was the truth. Whether it was a political, social or business situation that was being reported, they trusted that the journalists would find and report the facts. This began to change when news became more of a business instead of being a service to the public. Large corporations have taken over most of our news sources, and their focus is more on making profits and less on keeping people informed. News has become entertainment, and the emphasis is on showing events that are spectacular or involve celebrities. There are still a lot good journalists trying to report the truth, but many people have lost their trust in the mainstream media.

Science is another traditional source of truth that has lost the public’s trust. We used to be confident that the scientific method based on facts would give us honest information. However, that confidence has been eroded, and once again it is the presence of large corporations that has caused the problem. These companies control many of the scientific studies, and they bend the results to support their businesses. For many years the cigarette companies used ‘scientific’ studies to ‘prove’ that their product was not harmful. That is just one example of ‘science’ being twisted to boost profits. Another is the pharmaceutical industry which controls the testing of drugs and manipulates the results so that they can sell more of the pills that make big profits. Even when the science is honest (as it often is) the scientific community does not always agree on what is the “right” answer. In the field of medicine there are numerous high-profile disagreements about what is the best treatment, or whether a particular food or behaviour improves your health. So people get confused... and once again they lose their trust.

 
As a result of this loss of confidence in the traditional sources of information, people began to search for better alternatives. Many turned to the internet and this spurred the creation of countless websites that offer information and news from a wide range of perspectives. To a great extent this has been very valuable, but it is a two-edged sword. There is a much greater selection of sources for information, but many of them are not credible. This has led to the emergence of fake news, which makes it even more difficult to determine which online news sources are trustworthy. Fake news websites deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation to drive web traffic so that they can make money through automated advertising that rewards high traffic to their sites. These malicious “clickbait” sites prey on readers’ gullibility with clever designs that make them look like mainstream news outlets. Their objective is to deceive and generate high volumes of traffic either for commercial profit or to spread misinformation.

Perhaps the greatest problem caused by the spread of fake news is that it leads to so much confusion that readers do not know what to believe. Some of the people who see fake news stories actually believe them, but for most people it just makes them slightly more doubtful as to what is true. They may not believe an outrageous story, but they don’t disbelieve it either. It simply becomes part of a confusing background of unsettled questions. Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut (US), describes it this way: “The wider problem is that fake news has the effect of getting people to not believe in things that are actually true.” This confusion between fact and fiction can be effectively used to spread political misinformation. Propagandists don’t care whether most people really believe the things they are saying (although lots of people do). They don’t have to get you to actually believe it – they just have to get you confused enough so that you don’t know what to believe.

 
Much of this fake news is spread on Facebook which is used by over two billion people around the world. In this ‘share-first world’ people race to be the first to send something to their friends, and it is unlikely that they will spend the time to do much research about the source that they are sharing from. A high percentage of young people get most of their news from Facebook, and it does not appear that they are very adept at separating what is fake from what is real. In a recent study teenage students were shown an image of deformed flowers purportedly growing near the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. The photo appeared on an image-sharing website, and the students were asked if this qualified as evidence about the conditions near the plant. 40% considered it to be strong evidence, and over 80% said they were confident in the source of the information. As it turned out the photo was from a completely different location.


So how can you protect yourself from fake news? Most people place enormous trust in search engines to deliver accurate results, but even if you do a quick Google search, the viral fake story may have jumped to the top of the search due to the high amount of web traffic it is getting. Google and Facebook are working to fix these problems, but we should not depend on these companies to be our arbiters of truth. There is no guarantee that they are completely unbiased, and their track record in these matters is not great. A recent investigation reported that Facebook uses outsourced workers to manually filter content that looks like it may be abusive... and on average they make their evaluations in just 10 seconds.
 

Your best protection is common sense, and an easy first step is to check the source of the story. Often it is clear from the name of the website that it is pretending to be reputable by stealing the name and style of another publication. You can also take a look at the other stories on the website – if all of them are outrageous then it becomes pretty obvious that the site is fake. Finally, and most important, search for the same story by another source. If a story is real it will very likely have been covered by reliable sources.