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Fake news: The blurring between truth and fiction pandemic, but unstoppable?

If you’ve ever spread fake or nasty rumors, you know someone will end up being hurt.

When that rumour goes viral, it could change the course of history, like what many say happened to the wining campaign of now US president Trump when a Kremlin-connected campaign re-tweeted Donald Trump almost 500,000 times during the final months of the 2016 election.

This is no rumour: CNN said today Pope Francis released a message condemning “fake news,” saying that it’s a “sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred.”

If only that!

It’s the plague!

BBC Future Now interviewed a panel of 50 experts in early 2017. The topic was “Grand challenges we face in the 21st Century”.

“The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth,” Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine told the media.

Read: How fake is our news?

“Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact and all these counterfacts and facts look identical online, which is confusing to most people.”

Last October, the Pew Research Center predicted the fake-news problem plaguing Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech giants will only get worse.

The scale of the problem is massive.

The New York Times reported on a company called Devumi which reportedly accesses 3.5 million automated accounts used to boost the follower and engagement numbers of its more than 200,000 customers.

“By some calculations, as many as 48 million of Twitter’s reported active users, nearly 15% are automated accounts designed to simulate real people, though the company claims that number is far lower,” said the Times.

Twitter reported that nearly 5% of its user base, or more than 16 million accounts, are fake “spam” accounts.

Last November, Facebook said it had close to 60 million fake accounts on its platform, at least twice as many as it had previously estimated  or 2% of its monthly average users.

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A 2016 study entitled: “Anatomy of news consumption on Facebook” analyzed 376 million Facebook users’ interactions with over 900 news outlets and found that people gravitated around topics that fit with their perceptions and expectations.

“The information environment is built on the top of telecommunication infrastructures and services developed following the free-market ideology,” a data scientist told Pew, “where ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ are only useful as long as they can be commodified as market products.”

Regaining trust

DIGIDAY, an industry site, quoted Edelman’s “Trust Barometer 2018,” saying global trust in social platforms has fallen by two points since last year, while trust in journalism has risen by five point, a far cry from 2015, when trust in platforms was higher than trust in journalism.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer


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According the 2018 Global Risks Report, “It was during the 2016 US presidential election that “fake news” acquired global prominence, and according to one study, in the three months immediately prior to the election, the top 20 false news stories outperformed the top 20 stories from major news sources. Engagement with fake news stories increased by 53% compared with the previous three month period.”

“Another study noted that social media platforms directed 40% of the web traffic that went to fake news websites, compared with only 10% for the top mainstream news websites.”

The report added that Facebook has launched a number of efforts to address false news, clickbait, and sensationalism, including a partnership with fact checking organizations and a network of researchers called the News Integrity Initiative.

Facebook is trying to abandon the news-sharing business in favour of what made it famous to start with: social networking.

In October, Twitter announced it would ban RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, two major media organizations, from advertising on the platform, and that it was launching an “Advertising Transparency Center”.

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Arab fake news

According to Global investigative Journalism Network paints a different cersioon of Arab fake news.

“It’s not often these days that the Arab states can claim a world-class innovation ahead of the West. But when it comes to “fake news,” we had it way before they did,” the organization said.

It added that private communications in this part of the region has been hacked, while  the truth has become a quiet, uninspiring voice in a changing world where extremes shout.

“Arabs and foreigners alike have become victims of bad journalism and of fabricated and fake news. The difference, however, is that the West is witnessing a massive push back and there is little echo of that here in the Arab world,” it said.

The group said some 400 Arab journalists took part at Jordan’s Dead Sea in the 10th Annual Arab Investigative Journalism Forum where fake news was the theme of the meeting.

“Reporters worry about physical harm and political harassment if they go against partisan views,” it said.

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 Growth of fake news services

Rick Holland, VP Strategy, Digital Shadows said that Twitter accounts can suddenly come out of nowhere and attract tens of thousands of followers and retweets in a matter of hours associated with particular misinformation campaigns.

“In recent years, there has been a growth in toolkits and services designed to propagate the spread of misinformation, available for just $7, and aimed specifically at causing financial and reputational damage for companies and governments.

Example of spoof article: (source Digital Shadows)

“Businesses need to ensure they do all they can to monitor and protect their own reputations.”

Digital Shadows identified over ten services that allow user to download software, which controls the activities of social media bots.

“Others tools claim to promote content across over hundreds of thousands of platforms, including forums, blogs and bulletin boards. These work by controlling large numbers of bots; armies of computers that the individuals control and can configure the bots to post on specific types of forums on different topics,” said Holland.

“The battle against fake news could be getting even more difficult with advertisements for toolkits increasingly claiming to include built in features that bypass captcha methods, which were initially brought in to prevent bots and automated scripts from posting advertisements indiscriminately across these platforms.”