Fake News and Viral Content

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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