Monday 23 July 2018

Lexicon of lies spotlights fake news

'A new study aims to diffuse the charged language around fake news and clarify what's inaccurate what's inappropriately attributed, and what's a straight-up lie. 'Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information' is a study from the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.' Stock photo
'A new study aims to diffuse the charged language around fake news and clarify what's inaccurate what's inappropriately attributed, and what's a straight-up lie. 'Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information' is a study from the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.' Stock photo
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Can you tell fake news from real news? Misinformation from disinformation? Publicity from propaganda? It's tough going in the modern world, where groups of Macedonian teenagers can become as influential as respected legacy news outlets, and where the term fake news has become close to meaningless and has become a grenade to be lobbed at opponents.

But a new study aims to diffuse the charged language around fake news and clarify what's inaccurate what's inappropriately attributed, and what's a straight-up lie. 'Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information' is a study from the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.

Dr Caroline Jack, the study's author, believes that a clear understanding of the terminology around fake news is key to combating it. "The more we all know about different kinds of problematic information," she says, "and the better the vocabulary we have to critique what's happening, the more empowered we'll be to hold those who spread problematic information accountable - whether that's your weird uncle Dennis on Facebook, a YouTube celebrity or a newspaper, or television network."

Jack's study categorises and clarifies many of the terms in the fake news ecosystem. Misinformation is information whose inaccuracy is unintentional, while disinformation is deliberately false and misleading.

Advertising, PR, public affairs, information operations and propaganda are grouped as deliberate, systematic information campaigns, often orchestrated via mass media. And gaslighting is defined as a cocktail of deceptions and inaccurate narratives designed to cause a subject to stop trusting their own judgements and perceptions.

Jack points out that this tactic is similar to the Soviet Union notion of 'dezinformatsiya', the state-sponsored spread of misleading information to the media in targeted countries or regions. Now why would that sound familiar?

But is all this classification an exercise in semantics? Not according to Jack. "Our word choice can highlight certain aspects of a situation and downplay others," she says. "A great example of this is the official communication coming out of Facebook after the US election. It's fair to say that some people were caught off guard by how much of an effect Facebook could have had.

"So the first official communication explained the problem as one of hoaxes, a term that carries these associations with practical jokes and social commentary. I thought hoax had a certain kind of softness and downplayed the possible effect. And that was strategically convenient for Facebook."

Jack also points out that the media has always faced issues of half-truths and misrepresentation of the facts. But the arrival of the internet has offered global reach and created economic opportunities. The news may be fake, but the potential ad revenue is real. "Sensational journalism has a very long history," Jack says. "Certainly in the 20th Century you see sensationalist city newspapers. But there are geographic limits on how many copies a newspaper could sell within a city - no matter how sensational its stories were.

"Now, folks who want to profit from monetising clicks, by putting out exaggeration and misrepresentation into the conversation, can reach massive audiences on the internet, and they can monetise misinformation on a global scale."

So is it any wonder that trust in the mainstream media is falling? According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report for 2017, only 46pc of people in Ireland claimed to trust the news they consume most of the time. In the UK it was 43pc. In the US, 38pc.

Reuters also found that only 24pc believed social media could be relied on to separate fact from fiction. Consumers seem to implicitly grasp that a lack of transparency and the prevalence of algorithms encourages the spread of low quality and fake news.

"I hope that this low trust in media is an opportunity to get into these big questions like intent, and power and plausible deniability that are lurking in the background of this fake news conversation," says Dr Jack. "We're seeing more critical conversations about the promise of automated scalable solutions in relation to news quality and reliability. One of the things we need to reckon with here, is that facts are slightly different from truth.

"I talk a lot about accurate and inaccurate information, but perceptions are not just about accuracy. Accuracy is part of it, but so is fidelity to how we make sense of the world. And that varies from person to person. Judgements of truth are very difficult to automate."

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