Researchers are now using science to come up with techniques to combat fake news.
The term “Fake news” has become increasingly popular due to its linkage to debates surrounding democratic process and free speech in the information age. US President Donald Trump has taken credit for coining the term “fake news.” He has repeatedly criticized the media for what he deemed biased and “fake news,” attacking respected media outlets such as New York Times and CNN.
The term has been used by authoritarian leaders, such as Duterte and Maduro, in order to suppress and discredit unfavorable coverage. In a move that has been criticized as an attack on free press, Malaysia recently passed a law that allows jail terms of up to six years for spreading “fake news”. Singapore has also announced its intention to implement anti fake news legislation.
However, a more accurate use of the term refers to news stories that intentionally spread misinformation or false facts. In recent years, the growth of social media has enabled the spread of misinformation. Misinformation has the potential to cause social unrest and increase sectarian tensions. In some instances, such as the UK EU referendum, and the 2016 US Presidential elections, influence and misinformation campaigns are thought to have had a significant impact on the outcome of the vote. During the run-up to the election, major news providers, such as BBC, noted the prevalence of fake headlines such as “Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS” and “Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President.”
Fake news is a growing problem in India as well. In 2017, it was reported that a viral WhatsApp message had resulted in the death of seven individuals in eastern India. The message warned people to be wary of strangers in the region, as they might belong to a “child lifting gang.” Two separate mobs in villages in the state of Jharkhand beat victims to death, mistaking them for members of this gang.
Considering that social media is now a primary source for news and information, several dangers surrounding the phenomenon of “fake news” are growing. The most high-profile example of misinformation in social media that could affect democratic values was the report surrounding the 2016 US presidential election. Determining the measure and countering the false news in the digital age is presently still in its early stages.
In a study done by the journal Science, authors Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications, David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and an associate of the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science stated that a multidisciplinary initiative is required to understand how the internet spreads content and how readers process the news and information.
According to the authors, such exhaustive efforts are necessary in order to reduce the spreading of fake news and to address the fundamental pathologies it has exposed. “There needs to be some regular auditing of what the platforms are doing and how much this information is spreading,” Lazer added, “because there is a collective interest in the quality of the information ecosystem that we all live in.”
In addition to Baum and Lazer, the paper was co-authored by Yochai Benkler, Adam J. Berinsky, Kelly M. Greenhill, Filippo Menczer, Miriam J. Metzger, Brendan Nyhan, Gordon Pennycook, David Rothschild, Michael Schudson, Steven A. Sloman, Cass R. Sunstein, Emily A. Thorson, Duncan J. Watts, and Jonathan L. Zittrain.
“The internet has reduced many [previously enforced] constraints on dissemination of news. This allows outlets that do not embody these norms to compete online with those that do on a relatively more equal footing than was possible offline,” the authors mentioned. “This has contributed to the abandonment of traditional news sources that had long enjoyed high levels of public trust and credibility.”
It was noted that social networks have unintentionally become complicit in intensifying fake news. Such an example is Twitter’s trending mechanism. When the platform sees an increase in tweets about a particular topic, Twitter may list the topic as trending. However, studies show that the process can be manipulated.
“Generally, the platforms should avoid accidentally amplifying low-quality content when detecting what is trending,” Lazer said. “That seems like a no-brainer.”
The authors drew out two strategies to understand the flow and influence of fake news: empowering individuals to better evaluate the credibility of news, and making structural changes to prevent exposure to fake news.
“Our call here is to promote interdisciplinary research with the objective of reducing the spread of fake news and of addressing the underlying pathologies it has revealed,” the authors wrote. “More broadly, we must answer a fundamental question: How can we create a news ecosystem and culture that values and promotes truth?”
It was found that growing mistrust of mainstream media is one of the contributory factors to the rise in fake news.
Our assessment is that in order to ascertain that false content is not intensified across platforms, companies must engage in a better job of policing the use of software bots that control fake accounts and identify and remove false content. Major companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have taken several measures to combat fake news. Twitter moved its accounts linked to misinformation on Russia, while Facebook announced plans to shift its algorithm to account for quality in its content creation. The process of eliminating fake news from circulating is expected to take several years. However, we believe that over time, these measures could help restore citizens’ trust and credibility in news and information sources.