It’s nothing new: a grounding in history

Fake news is by no means new. Think back to the wars that have plagued the last century and what huge role propaganda played in the rise of the leaders that instigated these wars. The only difference is that propaganda is purposefully created and actively spread. Fake news does not always follow the same path as sometimes it can be mistakenly created and coincidentally spread. To fully understand the difference, let’s journey back and look at the use of propaganda in the 20th century.

Hitler and his propaganda

Hitler took calculated advantage of a common spirit that was prevalent in the German nation at the time. Germans felt wronged by the sanctions that were imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles after the first World War. The country was depressed and looking for anything resembling hope. Hitler plugged into this national gloom and offered a new confidence in the German Reich. He covered the entire spectrum of propaganda marketing . He offered positivity with his inspirational propaganda:

The KdF Kraft durch Freude campaign was created in a bid to improve the image of the German working class, directly avoiding pay increases. Source: BBC

Enough is enough. A vote for Hitler represented breaking the shackles imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Source: DHM

He played into common fears with his vicious scaremongering. Hitler actively fought the professional media by denouncing, undermining and fighting news outlets, like the Munich Post, that opposed him. Hitler constructed a reality for the people of Germany that made his actions seem unquestionable and right.

Anti Soviet Poster 1944 depicting the vile effects of Bolshevism Source: DHM

The vilification of Jews, Source: BBC

When we look back at his tactics we scratch our heads and think “how did they all fall for it”, but it’s all together not surprising when looking a little closer at Hitler’s strategy of manipulation. The heroes that stood up against him continued to question the reality he fabricated and were willing to risk and give their lives in the fight for truth, equality and compassion.

Constructed realities

Over the last century the political landscape has often meant that the general public was not presented with the entire truth, but rather with carefully constructed realities. Whether for the greater good or just political positioning, many political movements, leaders or events were labeled something they were not. In effect politicians and the media constructed a reality for the general public, for one reason or another.

Another example of these fabricated realities can be found in the politics and social movements of the late 20th Century and the Cold War. World leaders from the UK, Germany and the USA were presenting the world with carefully constructed realities. Leaders like Assad were vilified and vindicated depending on the leanings and economic interests of western politics.

Article from The Sunday Times
One minute Assad is considered for a knighthood (2012) Source: The Sunday Times

The next minute he is a super villain that must be stopped (2013)
Source: The Guardian

If you are interested in this period and the effects of political posturing watch the amazing “Hyper-normalisation” by Adam Curtis which talks at length about the manipulation of the public, which is still as as present as it was during the wars of the last century.

Newspapers

Our reality is not just influenced by political movements or governments. Newspapers and other news outlets play a large part in it too.

I have personally always struggled with newspapers in the UK, ever since I moved here from Germany 15 years ago. This might be a biased view due to the fact that I mainly covered broadsheet newspapers during my studies in Germany, but I always felt there was a dedication to stating the truth in German newspapers. Even though most publications had an evident and admitted political leaning, the news concentrated on pure facts. So a story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a newspaper that is positioned firmly in the central left, would state facts first and foremost. The headline would be a summary of the event, using plain language and the articles would only state factual events with no flourishes or interpretation. Only in the opinions section of the newspaper would the writers and editors show their political leaning and interpret the meaning of events.

In the UK, I always felt that the opposite was the case. Headlines, even by major, respected publications like the Guardian, use puns and often interpret facts, rather than just stating them. To me, this is where the phenomenon of fake news really gets started, as the blurring, interpretation and compromise of facts becomes a desperate bid to grab the reader’s attention.

In a recent investigation conducted by Buzzfeed (ironically), Charlie Beckett, professor of journalism at the London School of Economics said, “We have always had a partisan press that people enjoy and have become acclimatised to, Hyperpartisan news has always been part of our audience’s culture – and we do it better in some ways than fake news.”

For me this is just another confirmation that the attention grabbing approach of UK newspapers is just another, milder, instance of the fake news phenomenon. So where does fake news start and where does it end?

Levels of fake: From clickbait, misrepresented truths to fully fledged lies

This tendency of punchy, punny headlines has taken on another dimension online with the rise of clickbait. Clickbait is content with the principle purpose of attracting attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page. With ever growing content saturation online, websites fight for the user’s attention. Sadly clickbait has proven to grab the user’s attention and has therefore become a staple in the online world.

Clickbait is largely generalising, simplifying or even misrepresenting the the truth and is in my opinion the mildest form of fake news. But it doesn’t just have to be clickbait. Attention grabbing headlines, that are created to hook the reader, can be easily taken for fact, without actually reading the full article. Which can lead to complete misrepresentation of the truth.

Part of the problem, as mentioned before, is actually based on human psychology. Our brains constantly suffer from information overload and need to make assumptions and reduce information that is stored. Buster Benson recently wrote about this cognitive bias here.

Here is an overview of 4 tendencies Buster identified:

  1. Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal.

  2. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps. Signal becomes a story.

  3. Need to act fast lest we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions. Stories become decisions.

  4. This isn’t getting easier, so we try to remember the important bits. Decisions inform our mental models of the world.

The human tendency to filter, fill in gaps and jump to conclusions allows fake news to thrive. In a world where news consumption is often based on swiping down on various feeds, this bias can very quickly turn a misrepresentative headline into a game of whispers, as misinformation spreads like wildfire on social media. What used to be discussed in a small, local circle of friends (traditional gossip) is now amplified by social media.

This is further fuelled by an unfortunate condition of our society. A tendency in human nature to brag, emulate or seek to impress.

Take a closer look at filter bubbles. Everyone has their own bubble online. An individual’s filter bubble is constantly fed with data from search history, location and click behaviour. Data which is gathered to algorithmically predict what you want to see. Usually it’s quite accurate, so you are presented with content that confirms your existing beliefs. This personalised content is then shared by the individual in an effort to make connections with other users – to brag, to emulate and to impress.

The earlier mentioned tendency of the need to act fast is another catalyst of fake news. Our new kind of content consumption is a big reason as to why fake news is thriving.

“When social media became people’s primary source for news, it meant that fake news written by someone in Macedonia would be regarded in the same way as something from the New York Times” Damian Collins MP, Chairman of the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee in an interview with Buzzfeed.

Consider how many links to articles you scroll past every day. Whether it be on your Facebook feed, Twitter, or even Google’s Top Stories section. Do you ever find yourself not clicking on the article, because you’ve essentially got the whole gist of what’s happened from the headline? It’s not just because we don’t have time, it’s fueled by the tendency to act fast. Information that is merely scrolled past if often already absorbed and missing parts filled in subliminally, fake or not, no matter what the origin or creator of the price of information. There simply is no capacity or time to fact check. So click bait and misleading headlines are shared, absorbed and turned into fake news.

There is, however, a more sinister form of fake news. The above is mainly based on ignorance and fueled by human bias, the following is based on intentional lies. This is where we come full circle to fully fledged propaganda or, in other words, completely made up shit.

Online content outlets (I refuse to call them news outlets) like Breitbart construct news stories out of thin air. These fake stories then get amplified by social media and other key (politically affiliated) influences. These stories often tap into fear and encourage segregation, racism and radicalisation.

A so called mob attack on a German church that never happened.
Source: BBC, Image from Breitbart

So you can see this type of fake news is really not very dissimilar to what Hitler was using to rally the people of Germany, and sadly the way we consume information online is only further amplifying this type of hateful content.

Let’s talk about Google

This is where Google comes in. By design Google is not spreading fake news, however, their involvement in verifying facts is hugely questionable. I see the problem breaking down into two key areas. Firstly, Google search results often rank questionable sites highly for relevant queries in a bid to provide the searcher with the most relevant result. Sadly, most relevant often does not equal true.

Danny Sullivan recently tweeted about an answer he was provided by Google Home for the question “Are all women evil”.

Secondly, Google’s autocomplete functionality often auto completes searches with questionable and often biased phrases. Here are a few examples:

No caption needed!

Two very helpful suggestions from Google there.

Really?

So Google might not be actively spreading fake news, but they certainly do a great job in confirming the existing bias and presenting fake facts to those users looking to reinforce their fears and misconceptions. Google, in most cases, allows users to keep their bubbles intact, offering auto suggestions and results that underpin the searchers existing mindset.

The implications: how fake news changes our reality from little details to giant world changing events

The least of our problem with fake news is when it simply leads to some personal misunderstandings. Someone reads an item of fake news about all women being evil, takes it for the truth and that’s where it ends.

But fake news can have consequences, in all its guises. Only consuming bite size information without reading the full story and accepting headlines as the truth has lead many to make misinformed decisions. Take the example of WhatsApp. The app was recently boycotted by a group of people, fuelled by a headline in the guardian that was taken as fact by a reader. The gaps were filled in and WhatsApp was deemed as an untrustworthy app.

Source: Twitter

There is more. Fake news can have life changing, even world changing consequences. This is where fake news is simply another, more trendy word for propaganda. This is where false news is concocted deliberately and distributed with intent and precise targeting.

The EU referendum campaign for vote leave took full advantage of spreading incorrect information to advance their cause. A tactic that worked and led to the result of the referendum. So what was fake? The leave campaign famously decorated a bus with false facts about how much money would be fed back into the NHS once Britain had left the EU. Facts that were retracted immediately after the results were announced.

Lies on a bus
Source: The Independent

But the leave campaign went further than that. Their campaign was largely based on using social media, the sharing of biased views and fake information and the bubbles that are created within social media channels like Facebook to spread their message. Andy Wigmore, an instrumental figure in the leave campaign admitted to this sinister use of social media in a recent article in the Guardian.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

In said article, by Carole Cadwalladr, the extent of manipulation used in the leave campaign was directly linked with the Trump campaign. Cadwalladr also illustrates the troubling extent of organised distribution of fake news and the manipulation of audiences all over the world, based on filter bubbles and the power of social media marketing aided by machine learning.

Running the world with lies

“President Donald Trump” (deliberate use of quotation marks here) throws around the fake news term seemingly recklessly, but be assured this is a conscious tactic to undermine the press. Fake news surrounds Trump, remember those inauguration photos showing the difference in crowd size? Trump labelled them as “Fake news”. Negative polls about Trump’s presidency? Labelled as “Fake news”.

Disagree with Trump and you’re fake.

The big problem is that Trump is using the term fake news to his advantage and ironically is associating it with professional, trusted news organisations like the New York Times and the BBC. And it’s working. A poll of Trump supporters has shown they mistrust the media and have more trust that Trump is telling the truth.

Public opinion of Trump and the media.

The future of fake news

The US has a potential 4 long years to endure more of Trumps fake news media games. The word of the year in the runup to Trump’s election win was ‘post truth’, a contrast to 2015 when it was the smiling with laughter emoji.

😂 vs 💩

Post truth, according to oxforddictionaries.com is the ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

So are we living in a post fact reality?

There is the potential for us to to be fed fake news without realisation more easily as time goes on and as we are desensitised to Trump and an co’s fake news barrage. There is a real danger that fake news will take on even more forms. Most fake news at the moment is all text based. It’s all in the form of articles circulated online. But imagine if you were watching a livestream that was being manipulated in real time, without your knowledge. Live video, one of the most popular forms of online content, an often unquestioned form of content, could prove an invaluable asset to fake news instigators. Take a look at what it could be like for yourself:

The war on fake news: who stands up to fight the fake

With the future and our current reality at risk of being a construct of fake it’s imperative that online giants take significant steps to fight fake news.

Wikipedia has recently made a move to ban the Daily Mail as a reputable source on the site. Wikipedia editors have deemed the news group “generally unreliable”. This positive move shows that, hopefully, sensationalist headlines won’t be taken for fact every time and organisations are standing up against the fake news phenomenon.

Face the fake: Facebook’s actions

However, to make a real difference in this fight, the major channels that make fake news flourish need to take a similar stance. Facebook is arguably the biggest channel used by the instigators of fake news to spread their message, like the Leave campaign example. So how is Facebook fighting this trend? They largely denied any involvement in the outcome of the US election and denied that filter bubbles could be blamed for it, however, more recently, have publicly taken a stand against fake news. They have introduced the ability for users to flag a post or story as fake or untrustworthy which are then sent to independent fact check organisations. So they are crowdsourcing their decisions on what is fake and what isn’t, which is a questionable approach in my mind. The entire reason of fake news spreading like this is that those people targeted by it don’t realise it is fake and take it face value. You don’t rely on those inside a filter bubble to burst it, in my opinion. It’s clearly not a good enough effort from Facebook!

So little an effort that the German government threatened large fines for the organisation if untrue facts weren’t removed. Amal Rajan reported about Facebook’s reaction to the treat. The social media channel started working with Correctiv, an independant company that checks for fake news on Facebook in Germany and labels them as ‘disputed’.

So what about Google?

Unfortunately, the search giant has taken a similarly lame approach to fighting the fake. Firstly they simply relabeled their “In the News” results to “Stories”. That’s it. Now we all know it’s not actually news, it’s just BS! Well done, Google.

Other actions taken by Google against fake news have sadly been rather reactive. When called out about presenting results that were holocaust denial sites, Google adjusted their results to show reputable sites instead. Unfortunately Google Suggest still encourages searches for holocaust denial. Arguably the functionality of auto filling these types of queries acts to promote and reinforce the views of those deniers.

The first suggestion just replaced the word “real”. Well done Google, really on trend here!

So yet again, the efforts to fight the fake are simply not good enough.

Ultimately we depend on real journalists and influencers to stand up against fake news and propaganda, just like the Munich post did during the rise of Hitler. News outlets like the New York Times and the BBC are taking a stand and questioning every instance of fake news they come across. It’s never been more important for us to support these old giants of news, to make sure our future isn’t manipulated and shaped by fake facts.

Don’t fall for fake: how we all can actively fight for truth and avoid spreading garbage

If we’re going to make any progress towards combating fake news, we all need to stay vigilant when looking at content. Every time you read an article read it in full. Don’t settle for just the headline. Question it, check the sources, verify they’re reputable. Ensure it’s not just a satire piece. we all have to make a conscious effort to think about what it is we are reading and sharing.

Be wary when you’re sharing content. Remember that every post you Like on Facebook will start to filter through to all your friends, even if you haven’t specifically shared it. Be cautious of the information you’re spreading. Don’t share what you don’t know.

Finally, be kind to others both on & offline. Educate others, politely challenge them when they’re wrong. Have sensible discussions and find out what the real facts are before promoting hearsay. Support real journalism, and all will be ok.