Wednesday 20 September 2017

Steve Dempsey: Faking it: why spurious reports should be yesterday's news

'Google and Facebook have taken tentative steps to prevent their ads from being displayed on sites that spread false stories or around the content they spread. Facebook is also working with fact-checking sites like Snopes.' File photo: PA
'Google and Facebook have taken tentative steps to prevent their ads from being displayed on sites that spread false stories or around the content they spread. Facebook is also working with fact-checking sites like Snopes.' File photo: PA
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Fake news is an odd term that's been doing the rounds thanks to the US presidential election. It's supposed to refer to information that's misinterpreted, misleading or downright false. The most celebrated example has been dubbed 'Pizzagate'. It is a debunked story, about a pedophilia ring linked to the Democratic Party in a pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.

Fake news is a phenomenon that could only have flourished in the internet era, where traditional media business models are under increasing pressure, news has become commoditised and companies that aren't typical media outlets have colonised the lucrative role of news distribution.

With elections on the horizon in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, it's a problem that needs to be tackled head-on.

It has an economic, a technical and a societal component. There's also a semantic issue. The term 'fake news' is itself a euphemism. There's a simpler word. Lies.

But the word lie is proving difficult for some media outlets to stomach. The Wall Street Journal's editor-in-chief Gerard Baker recently said that his paper would not refer to falsehoods uttered by Donald Trump as lies. Instead, they are to be called statements that are "challengeable" and "questionable".

But while the Wall Street Journal is wilfully entering a world of Orwellian double-speak, others are doing something about it. The French paper, Le Monde, for instance, has set up a 13-person fact-checking unit called Les Décodeurs which has been tasked with automating methods of exposing false news at scale.

But the barriers to entering the media game have dropped so much that anyone can get in on the act. There are plenty of websites who have no qualms about repeating and distributing lies. Just take sites like WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com and USConservativeToday.com. All specialise in fake news, all are run by a group of entrepreneurial Macedonian teenagers and all are designed to cash in on the allure of sensationalist news on social platforms.

When headlines like 'Hillary's Illegal Email Just Killed Its First American Spy' and stories like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump (both false) are liked and shared often enough, polarisation ensues and the lines between fact and fiction become blurred. With this sort of online competition, it's baffling that any reputable media outlet would stray from a USP of talking straight, checking facts and calling bullshit.

Those who distribute news (fake or otherwise) at scale - Google, Facebook, Twitter, even 4Chan, Reddit - also have a part to play in combating the spread of lies. Google and Facebook have taken tentative steps to prevent their ads from being displayed on sites that spread false stories or around the content they spread. Facebook is also working with fact-checking sites like Snopes.

The tech companies may need to be incentivised to keep up to date with anyone trying to game their systems to peddle lies and propaganda. One suggested incentive from the German Social Democratic Party would see that companies like Twitter and Facebook have a local office to monitor and react to fake news around the clock.

If local bureaus failed to delete lies or hate speech within 24 hours, fines of up to €500,000 per item could be levied.

And if we're talking about hitting people where it hurts - their pockets - advertisers also have a role to play. Brands should be aware that being associated with news outlets that spread lies or stoke racism may not be in their best interests and blacklisting some sites may be beneficial. Kellogg's, for instance, pulled its advertising from Breitbart.com, saying the far-right news site's values conflict with its own.

But let's be clear - the biggest onus of all is on the audience to apply some cop on when faced with unbelievable and outlandish stories. Sounds easy, but this is really the hardest part of the fake news conundrum. Sometimes we prefer a lie that suits our world view to an inconvenient truth.

Let's go back to Pizzagate. Edgar Welch is a 28-year-old from North Carolina who entered the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria with an assault rifle to investigate the stories of a child sex-ring for himself. He fired three shots before surrendering when he found no evidence that under age children were present. However, in an interview with the New York Times, Welch still held to the conspiracy theory and rejected that it was fake news.

Sunday Indo Business

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