Today, as I was searching for stuff on Duckduckgo, I came across a whole bunch of stories I wrote for CBS News 10 years ago. The first piece in that list caught my attention as its topic sounds very up to date. It triggered more thoughts about fake news and led me to another piece describing what fake news really is.
Fake news: don’t believe everything you read online
“Don’t believe everything you read online” it was entitled. I’m not sure about the “online” bit. A lot of nonsense has been written on paper and even probably on clay tablets for that matter. We would know now, if only we had found more of them. In this instance, I was analysing a report about teenage IT savvy and how this information had been mishandled by the Guardian, an otherwise revered publication.
Ten years on, you can hardly bump into someone without them mentioning “Fake News”. For most, Fake news is this mysterious spreading of false information on social media (once admired, now the target of antitrust probes and criticisms).
Yet, Fake news isn’t that easily fabricated. Here is what the Center for Information Technology & Society in Santa Barbara, Ca* has to say about it.
- Firstly, it’s not new (hence my clay tablet remark) but social media (here we go again) helped spread it more easily and faster
- Secondly, the audience, as with any medium, fake or true, is of the essence: “those who operate fake news websites want as many visitors to their sites as possible”. This comes at a cost, not everyone can build an audience. Bear that in mind.
- There are two kinds of fake news website according to CITS, ideological ones and those who just want you to click on their links (I’m not sure how that second category fits in the overall fake news picture, all this sounds more like link-baiting to me).
That said, here is what it takes to build a fake news site, hold on, it’s not easy and it doesn’t come cheap either:
- At first, you will have to create a Website, fill it in with content and devise a credible domain name for it so that people mistake it for a true news site. That lat bit doesn’t come easy. All three examples (www.newshound.com, www.patriotnews.co, or www.nbcnews9.net) provided by CITS have already disappeared. Either they have been sued or they purely and simply vanished.
- Secondly, you’ll have to steal some content. That’s a much easier thing to do. Many of my students have shown great acumen in that area. Many have been caught redhanded however. “Fake news site owners will go to [Satire websites like The Onion or Clickhole], copy, and re-post the content on their own sites, attempting to pass this information off as factual”. Sounds easy, but copying content cleverly requires knowledge if you don’t want to get caught (like my students 😉
- Third stage, i.e. assuming you have managed steps one and two, monetisation. As we are doing this for some media websites, I can assure you that it’s anything but easy either. You need to build a significant readership, maintain it over time, and that comes at a cost: adding content regularly, updating it, working with your audience, capturing their attention, etc. Besides, affiliate marketing gimmicks that came cheap and easy in the 1990s have been replaced with more upmarket solutions. Not the end of the world, but not everyone can do this properly and it requires time, resources and money.
- Fourthly, spread the word through social media. That we know too is anything but easy either, what with platform algorithms and rules that are becoming ever more strict. Once again, not as easy as it used to be.
- Repeat is the fifth stage. As with all word of mouth marketing (with good or bad intentions) it requires time and effort. Once again, it requires, time, resources and money.
In conclusion, “Fake News” isn’t plain sailing. It requires a lot of knowledge. This means that Joe Bloggs cannot go online and fake a fake news website in a matter of seconds. It requires a lot of effort and, possibly, the backing of an organisation or a country with lots of money, or even a conspiracy theorist group.
It is, therefore, more a question of disinformation and propaganda, as propagandists around the world have done since the dawn of time. The most skilful and Machiavellian of them have been very successful without the Internet, but with Twitter at their disposal, no doubt they would have done even “better”.
Last but not least, it is also possible to attack proper reporting as being Fake News, when it is deemed unfavourable. It’s an old propaganda sleight of hand, vaguely modernised via social media, for which social is in no way responsible.
Fake news takes time to build, it also takes time to be detected. Don’t believe everything that you read (online). Besides, stop blaming social media platforms, they are just tools. Our most effective protection against propaganda is your critical eye on the one hand and the vote you will be casting in your national elections on the other hand. You are in control.
Don’t believe everything you read online
I’ve been thinking about how bad information can go global thanks to the internet. Morgan Stanley’s July 2009 report, “Media & Internet: How Teenagers Consume Media”, is one of the most striking examples of instant information circulation worldwide.
This was the report put together by 15-year-old intern Matthew Robson. In a flash, his insights into how his peers used the Web were on everyone’s lips (or everyone’s desktops) and widely used as a perfect representation of Generation Y’s use of media and the Net.
That a survey of one might appear representative of a 60 million population says a lot about how adults, not teenagers, consume media.
Source: Don’t Believe Everything You Read Online – CBS News
“The Center for Information Technology and Society (CITS) is a multidisciplinary endeavour at UCSB spanning the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering […] CITS hosts conferences, workshops, and speakers. It supports a variety of working groups, and provides administrative support for the PhD Emphasis in Information Technology and Society”