Everything old is new again. Fake news is not new – it is just a new word for an old phenomenon. Misinformation, propaganda, deceit and lying have been a part of the dark arts of persuasion throughout history. Canard is another word for it, based on the French news sheets of the 18th century which hawked false stories of mythical beasts being captured in Chile or made-up political scandals involving Marie Antoinette. But even before that fake news has been a problem. Rulers and monarchs have always spun stories to their advantage. Perhaps the first example of this is back in the reign of Ramses II who depicted the Battle of Kadesh, the earliest battle for which we have dates, tactics and formations, as a great victory for the Egyptian forces. The outcome is a lot less certain than the bas-reliefs of Ramses make out though and at best these are misrepresentations, at worst fake news.
What is fake news and where did it come from?
With the rise of the press in the 18th century came more and more fake news. The Morning Post, a newspaper founded in 1772, featured mostly made up stories. Marie Antoinette was again a target, this time from the British press, with The Morning Post publishing a false story about her sexual patronage and preference for English men. Yellow journalism at the end of the 19th century came to define and set the agenda for that period in America. Locked in a circulation war William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World declared that the USS Maine, docked in Spanish-owned Havana, was blown up by a torpedo launched by the Spanish. The fallout from this started the Spanish-American War. In the subsequent Philippine-American War made up stories about atrocities were also rampant in the US press.
Of course fake news has come to widespread popular attention recently. President Trump tweets frequently about how the main stream media is making up fake stories about his administration. Macedonian fake news farms flood social media with stories about a Democratic Part linked paedophile ring based in a pizza restaurant’s basement or that Hillary Clinton was having people murdered to cover up crimes. Fake news has always been a part of our lives but in the world of social media it has been weaponised and spreads like never before.
Fake news flourishes in the emotional recesses of our minds, clinging onto our in-built desire to be proven right. It targets our lizard brain looking to short circuit our rational reaction to news and information. Stories appearing on Facebook or Twitter can spread around the globe before anyone can debunk them. It is far, far easier to break things than to fix them and fake news depends on this. Fake News taps into rage and anger, two motivating emotions which encourages people to hit like or share without thinking.
Trust in the media is falling. With people not viewing the material they read on legitimate sites as, well, legitimate, it leaves open the door for fake news to flourish. Fake news preys on this lack of trust to lend it an air of believability. By encouraging people to doubt real reporting and put their faith in false allegations and made up stories, fake news damages civil discourse.
It has increased political polarisation, aided by its ability to spread on social media, and it has had a much talked about effect on both the US Presidential election of 2016 and the Brexit referendum in the UK earlier that same year. The fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a political intelligence company got access to large amounts of Facebook users’ data without their knowledge and used it to target specific ads, showed how people are vulnerable to certain messaging.
But the impact of fake news is not confined to these two countries. In Sri Lanka, religious tensions between the majority Buddhist nation and the Muslim minority population flared up after fake news about Muslims attempting to sterilise Buddhists found a home and spread on social media. Businesses and mosques were burnt to the ground and in the rioting three people were killed.
Fake news does not cause these tensions to exist, but it depends on them to survive. But there are companies and people out there trying to starve fake news of the legitimacy and platform it needs to spread and succeed in its goals. Many, though, are trying to solve the problem of fake news by focusing on the wrong issue. Factmata has done a great job in developing tools to identify and target fake news. However, it is selling this information to advertisers so that their ads do not appear beside damaging fake news stories. This will help make fake news less profitable to produce.
Veles, in Macedonia, produces a lot of the fake news people are exposed to online. It is a large student city and these students produce the material for their own financial gain. Articles which can spread by tapping into the emotional response of people, by inflaming their anger, can attract a lot of clicks. These students make money easily from this material.
How to really fight fake news
But fake news does not need to make money to be successful or worthwhile. Polarising the political debate, shutting people off from opposing views and making people view their fellow citizens as the enemy is enough. Money is just the cherry on top.
To really fight fake news faith and trust in the media must be restored. The fragmentation of journalism in the online world has created a place for views, opinion and news from across the breadth of the political spectrum to find a place to influence the voting public. Sites are believed and read since they align with someone’s inherent political world view, regardless of how thorough or well thought through that reporting is.
We will tackle this by building one site for trusted news. With no political angle, all viewpoints are accepted with the only editorial bias being for truthfulness and quality. Gathering and hosting news from diverse viewpoints, both from established publishers and independent experts and journalists, will make it easy for people to find news that they can trust once again. Our decentralised editorial review makes sure that articles are accurate, and fact checked. We are building AI tools that will help identify what is fake news and what is not.
One feature we will have which we are very excited for is how we are presenting two sides of the story. We have been testing it and it has received a great reception. The idea is simple. Stories that take one view of events are put right beside stories that take another view. We have even introduced the concept into our newsletter. Last week we brought stories about Donald Trump’s trade war with China together, both for and against it. Our analytics revealed that people will click on both. They want to find out more, they do not want to limit themselves to one side of the debate. We will make it easier than ever to do this.
Fake news is a problem. But there are solutions out there. By presenting all sides of a story, by being thoroughly fact checked, by bringing together opinion from all over the political spectrum and by transparent in how we do each of these things, Mogul News will be the solution to fake news.