July 30, 2018Published by: Charlie Sharpe

The fake news fightback is real

Fake news is old news, right? You know, that thing that reared its ugly head a couple of years ago and then quickly turned into memes? Well, yes and no. It may have made headlines in 2016 with the British referendum on whether to leave the EU, the US election, and various brands becoming victims of fake news, but its application and effects are still very much being seen and felt today.

Through social channels and low-grade news outlets, blogs and web content, it’s morphed into something more nuanced, something that can often be difficult to spot, but is still having very negative and damaging ramifications for individuals, brands, and even entire nations.    

There is some hope though. At last the social media platforms, where much of the fake news and misinformation is spread, are beginning to take action. Recent features and policies from Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have been launched to combat these toxic online trends in a bid to reduce deceitful and misleading content, while also providing more transparency and authenticity to the news that is disseminated on social platforms.

Word spreads fast
Some would argue it’s too little too late; public unrest in India recently was triggered by misinformation spread on WhatsApp groups. RS Prasad, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, said the Facebook-owned messaging platform to date has not provided sufficient security for its biggest market (India has more than 200 million users). In fairness, WhatsApp has been quick to respond, launching an ad campaign to educate users in how to prevent the spread of misinformation, and announced soon after that it was launching a new feature that permitted group admins to limit who could send messages. WhatsApp has since followed up by adding a label to indicate when a message has been forwarded. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s an attempt to solve the problems.

The purge
Twitter has also made high-profile moves to deal with fake news. Following criticism from A-list celebrities to the US government that the platform has allowed fake accounts and bots to pervade for too long, the micro-blogging platform is in the middle of a major purge. It began back in May but peaked in July with celebrities like Katy Perry, Shaquille O’Neal, Ellen DeGeneres and Barack Obama losing millions of followers. In total, Twitter has removed more than 70 million accounts over the last two months. According to various third-party researchers this is long overdue as it is estimated 9%-15% of Twitter’s users are bots. David Caplan, the co-founder of TwitterAudit, estimates that only 40%-60% of Twitter users are real people. While the purges have left stock-holders concerned (Twitter’s share price plunged 21% after Q2 earnings were announced on July 27), these estimations clearly highlight how urgent this review was.

Political lies
Facebook has also revealed that it is taking new approaches to dealing with fake news on the platform, but in contrast to Twitter’s PR win, it’s left most people feeling underwhelmed. Facebook announced it will be partnering with fact-checkers to search for false content, with the aim of reducing the visibility of hoaxes and giving more context and information about questionable stories. This approach is tantamount to admitting that fake news and misinformation is a problem so big Facebook may not be able to completely fix it.

In an address to media, Facebook’s product manager, Tessa Lyons, said that “if you are who you say you are, we don’t believe we should stop you from posting content”. Facebook instead is more obsessed with shutting down fake accounts than making judgement calls on potentially damaging content. claiming that it has closed 583 million fake accounts in the first quarter of 2018 alone. At present it doesn’t seem to have a solution for handling provocative or misleading content and viewpoints, other than to make them harder to find.

One thing Facebook did expose in July was the adverts that the Vote Leave campaign paid for on the social platform during the Brexit referendum. The Electoral Commission has confirmed that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law by overspending, partnering with student group BeLeave, and crucially not having an imprint on the ads showing which campaign produced them. The ads used micro-targeting to push content promoting both campaigns to key demographics. Some of the advertising is extremely misleading and highlights just how complex the problems have become for Facebook and the issues they will have to deal with in the future to prevent illegal practices.

While all of these new developments vary in complexity and their potential effectiveness, it’s clear that the social media giants are finally waking up to the huge variety of problems with fake news on their platforms and are making inroads to tackle them. Let’s hope it isn’t too little, too late, and we’re all a bit more attuned to spotting a fake story, image or advert, when we see one.

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