Fake News and Viral Content

June 24, 2019

For the past century, fake news hasn’t been something to worry too much about.
Ever since the New York Sun’s attempt to fool readers in 1835 was called out, news
sources until the digital age tried to maintain a good reputation, especially at the
more prestigious papers (Standage,2017). But the digital transformation has led to
fake news, media manipulation and dented democratic processes. For example,
“Fake news emerged as an issue after the 2016 US election, in which the most
widely circulated stories in the last three months of the campaign came from false
websites and hyper partisan blogs” (Pangrazio, 2018 p.8). We look at post 2016 as
after Trump's dubious election victory, questions were asked as to how this had
been made possible with the answer partially pointing towards the issue of fake
news. Social media does play a key role in all of this and this is recognized in the
digital transformation of news distribution and the increasingly important role that
social media, including Facebook and its affiliated companies, play in online news
publishers' efforts to expand their consumer reach (Martens et al., 2018). We as
humans are naturally susceptible to manipulation by digital misinformation and lies
thanks to a complicated assortment of social, cognitive, economic and algorithmic
biases (Menczer, 2016). Because of this, we have been susceptible to the situation
we find ourselves in at this current moment in time. We look at some of the issues
which have enabled fake news and the different types of misinformation to be so
prolific in its current forms.

 

One of the problems of this digital transformation has arisen from “the monetisation
and rapid circulation of ‘news’ through digital platforms that have led to such
widespread and effective forms of media manipulation” (Pangrazio, 2018 p.8). With
this news being consumed by more and more people, the effect of fake news
increases.

“According to the Pew Research Centre, 62% of American adults now get their news
through social media. Of this 62%, 64% report that they only get their news from
Facebook” (Gottfried, 2017).

 

If a third of Americans only get their news through Facebook, the ease of
manipulating them individuals perception of the world is very simple. The term
spreadable media, meaning “to the potential – both technical and cultural – for
audiences to share content for their own purposes, sometimes with the permission of
the rights holder, sometimes against their wishes”. (Mihailidis and Viotty 2017 citing
Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Sam Ford 2013). This sharing of media, of
political messages, of news, is what has exacerbated the problem of fake news. With
a false statement very easily being spread around the world with a few clicks of a
button. An interesting extract from Craig Silverman's book, Lies, Damn Lies and Viral
Content, supports this point greatly.

“ Lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful
role in making this happen. News websites dedicate far more time and resources to
propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or
debunk viral content and online rumours. Rather than acting as a source of accurate
information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive
traffic and social engagement” (Silverman, 2015 ).

 

This attempt to monetize online media is a cause for concern as the revenue is
generated by clicks and the term clickbait has come around from this practice. The
term is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as something (such as a headline)
designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads
to content of dubious value or interest (Merriam-webster.com, 2019). With there
being big money involved with online media and the money being generated by
clicks, it is clear to see that this is one of the key issues of the digital transformation
of news media which has enabled fake news to rear its head again.

Another issue arising from the digital transformation is the social network and the
way that has created online communities which have been enabled to only hear and
see with what you interact with already. This alongside having friends share content,
often with a similar viewpoint or experiences, can quickly be verified by an individual
due to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by
looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs

(Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019). This social network can change a persons ability to
critique the information as described below.

“When a news article or digital resource is shared on a social media platform, it is
done so via some kind of social relationship, be it a strong or weak tie. It matters that
we are familiar with the individual who shared the article, as this can abate critical
faculties and position the reader to engage with the text in particular ways. On social
media, the underlying relationship or impression one has of the person sharing
becomes particularly significant in how that information is interpreted” (Pangrazio,
2018 p.11).

 

What Pangrazio talks about here is what makes the social media platform so
dangerous as we have a barrier of defence taken down in the form of a
friend/connection sharing the content. With a person we have some form of
relationship, we have a degree of trust and this can and does make people less wary
when consuming news on social media. A small experiment by a Professor of
Informatics and Computer Science at the Indiana University School of Informatics,
Computing, and Engineering highlights this brilliantly.

“About 10 years ago, my colleagues and I ran an experiment in which we learned 72
percent of college students trusted links that appeared to originate from
friends—even to the point of entering personal login information on phishing sites.
This widespread vulnerability suggested another form of malicious manipulation:
People might also believe misinformation they receive when clicking on a link from a
social contact” (Menczer, 2016).

 

This explanation is verified in the terms of social interaction and verification which is
looked at in more philosophical terms here:

“When disseminated via a social media platform, a news article becomes more than
just information; it becomes a conduit for affective relations between individuals.
Specifically, social networks tend to be made up of like-minded people, meaning the
phenomenon of confirmation bias, in which we seek out or more readily believe

information that confirms what we know or value is enhanced” (Pangrazio, 2018
p.11).

This confirmation bias which Braucher references is very dangerous, especially
when thinking with the Echo chamber theory in mind. The term echo chamber means
that in certain situations where people “hear their own voice” — or, particularly in the
context of social media, situations where users consume content that expresses the
same point of view that users themselves hold or express (Garimella et al., 2018
p.2). This has come about through “The combination of rising partisanship and
pervasive social media usage in the United States that have created fears of
widespread “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” (Sunstein, 2001; Pariser, 2011
cited by Guess, Nyhan and Reifler, 2018) There is growing concern that, as citizens
become more polarized about political issues, they do not hear the arguments of the
opposite side, but are rather surrounded by people and news sources who express
only opinions they agree with (Garimella et al., 2018 p.1). It is considered that this is
a direct effect of the echo chamber, this is has come to be a real issue with the
assistance of social media platforms/algorithms which are set up and coordinated to
show you what you want to see. This polarisation is often not one of choice and can
be done unexpectedly.

 

A person does not consciously choose to exclude him or herself from the ‘outside’
(i.e., information of less interest to them) by creating an imaginary wall. Instead,
Facebook and Google control your flow of information, building an imaginary wall
around you (Ravenscraft, 2016 cited by Pangrazio). Ending up in such echo
chambers comes about through ‘clicking’, which includes actions on social media like
‘liking’, ‘sharing’ and ‘searching’. Through all the clicks you have done, a data-double
is created of you, which is a profile of the ‘online you’ (Timmermans, 2017).

To explain this point further, the individual who consumes fake news inadvertently
will have more fake news targeted to them. This exacerbates the problem as the
misinformation reverberates around their online network/profile which they naturally
become more susceptible to. This sometimes in fake news for ideological purposes
but more often than not it is commercial fake news which is a problem I discuss
below.

 

Another problem within this new era of fake news is the fake news purely for
commercial gain. These are often the most outrageous and ambitious claims
published in an attempt to go viral and to generate revenue from people clicking on
the links providing advertising money. These are often teenagers who have little
interest in politics but want to generate traffic to their website so put political slants to
make it more controversial thus making people more likely to read it. This is captured
well by Luci Pangrazio,

“While bias in the news is not new, the opportunities brought about by the
democratization, monetisation and circulation of 'news' via digital platforms has
brought this issue to a critical point, highlighted by Trump’s surprising election
victory. The goal for the teenagers of Veles, however, is simply to attract clicks in
whichever way they can, whether through clickbait, polls or sensational news
stories.” ( Pangrazio, 2018 pg.7).

Even though these messages have political slants, it does not make them
necessarily post truth or ideological fake news. It does, however, get put into the
fake news mix being consumed by people which can still catch people out due to
poor levels of media literacy. Another extract from What’s new about ‘fake news’?
Critical digital literacies in an era of fake news, post-truth and clickbait by Luci
Pangrazio explains this further below.

 

“While the sites appear legitimate with domain names designed to imitate genuine
news sites, like ABCnews.com.co and Bloomberg.ma, the news articles are cobbled
together from other false news articles and online content. However, once shared by
'friends' on social media platforms these fake news stories acquire a legitimacy that
exploits the affective relations between users and their predetermined political bias.
In light of this, rather than being social nuisances, the teenagers of Veles ability to
manipulate the technical affordances of digital platforms and the affective reasoning
of social media users, make them models par excellence for what it means to be
digitally literate in an era of platform politics” ( Pangrazio, 2018 pg.7).

The use of domain names similar to legitimate news sources tricks people into
believing it enough to click on it, this is all the publisher wants as this generates their
revenue. Where this differs from post truth fake news is that the publishers of this
type of fake news are wanting you to take more from it rather than merely click and
leave them with advertising revenue. The latter type of fake news is widely thought to
be the leading cause in the political and democratical turbulence in western society.

When we look at political persuasions in America, both party supporters are more
susceptible to ideological fake news. This is supported here, “Democrats and
Republicans are both about 15 percent more likely to believe ideologically aligned
headlines, and this ideologically aligned inference is substantially stronger for people
with ideologically segregated social media networks” (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017
p.213). This susceptibility to fake news when it includes a political slant could be
attributed to the confirmation bias phenomenon taking place. This highlights the
issue of human nature and the digital transformation working together to give
misinformation a perfect storm to create a large problem that affects society today in
a deep and complex manner of which people are looking for solutions at a rapid rate.

What we have looked at so far highlights some of the issues we have as a society
with fake news due to the digital transformation of our consumption of news media.

 

Fake news is not a new issue to our society, it is an old issue that has taken a new
form. The first occurrence of fake news was reported in the 16th century (Standage,
2017). It is only recently however that it has surged back onto our radar screens, in
the wake of the digital transformation of news from offline to online distribution and
the rise of social media as a news distribution channel (Martens et al., 2018 p.8).
This digital transformation has occurred over a period time but what actually is a
digital transformation? A digital transformation is the profound transformation of
business and organizational activities, processes, competencies, and models to fully
leverage the changes and opportunities of a mix of digital technologies and their
accelerating impact across society in a strategic and prioritized way, with present
and future shifts in mind (i-SCOOP, 2019). The instigator to this transformation was
the internet and the ability to share and create information which is accessible all
over the world at the click of a button which has changed business, individuals, and

behaviours. This is not new thing for the media industry, it has been continuously
exposed to technology-induced turbulence (Martens et al., 2018).

 

This has been a complex topic to explore due to the intricate web of how this fake
news problem has been enabled and continue to be a problem in this day and age.
Some of the issues are ones which the digital transformation has enabled to become
viable again, such as the commercial fake news, which was largely obsolete during
the 20 th century. Or the algorithms on social media which have allowed echo
chambers to form and individuals not to hear contrasting opinions and confirmation
bias to remove any critical thinking over a particular subject matter. It is a mixture of
these elements of fake news which make it such a huge and complicated area to
resolve and understand. The ease and low cost of creating and spreading
information on the internet has allowed commercial fake news to become viable
again but with an echo chamber of commercial misinformation the problem is
exacerbated in today’s world. This is just one example but the real problem here is
the fact that these issues intertwine and grow deeper and stronger together which
make it harder for the powers and society that be to unravel the mess that is fake
news and for us to live in a world with real information, back up by facts and figures.
We have politicians spreading fake news, or news which isn’t entirely true either
which means the problem is much bigger than simply stopping trolls on the internet.

 

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