Fake News is fake

Fake news. Out to get you.

As the American presidential campaign has likely come to an end, it has sparked a myriad of debates around the globe. Advocates of globalism, localism, nationalism, democracy, multiculturalism and minority rights have found plenty of new-found ammunition and are instilled with fresh vigour to further their causes. One of the outcomes is the sudden surge in the word fake news. As the media is grasping for straws and try to rationalise Trump’s victory, they are looking for scapegoats. Fake news might be one, and a dangerous one when blatantly accepted.

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Just to be clear, fake news and click-bait article are real. Period. There are people operating on the net that make a nifty profit out of spreading such misinformation and creating websites as they easily attract customers, and thus selling advertisement becomes an easy profit. Whatever your intelligence or web literacy, we are all susceptible to feel that urge to click the screaming Buzzfeed headline that tells you all about THE 10 LATEST PICTURES THAT YOU HAVE TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE.

On the other hand, we have the satirical websites that we know as The Onion, De Speld and Wunderground. They wonderfully function as a mirror to society, and portray the weirdness of the current state of the world by twisting stories in such a manner that they preserve the original meaning but phrase them in a different light.

Both the above are easily identifiable for most – although for the latter not always the case – leading to hilarious online discussions as people fall for the obvious bait and submit outrageous reply’s in the comment section.

Something else is going on though.

If you look at Google trends, you can see a very sudden and steep rise in fake news queries in the year 2016, which started just after the elections ended.

Fake News
Fake news queries over time, taken from Google Trends

This rise might partly be caused by Melissa Zimdars, associate professor of communications at Merrimack College, who made a list of fake news websites, which has faced much critique. She originally designed the list as material for the course she is teaching, but soon found out that many people were interested in the topic and provided input to the list.

Many websites that are on the list host information that genuinely  represents the world view of people. More importantly, it seems that many fringes of extreme right conservative corners on the internet seem to be overly represented, whilst extreme left sites such as The Huffington Post stay out of sight (and even humorously bad journalistic(?) sites such as Buzzfeed are not listed). Although Breitbart.com and Infowars.com – both on the list – are also dubious with regards to their journalistic standards, they do give a voice to a large group of people who simply think differently than the narratives conjured by the main stream news. To discredit everything that is on the list as simply fake and discreditable comes across as censorship.

Luckily, Zimdars is aware of this. In an interview with usatoday.com she states that the “list identifies some fake news sites, some that may be misleading or unreliable that do report sometimes on actual events to various degrees to truthiness. Then there are sites that generally do okay reporting on stuff, but they rely on clickbait-style Facebook descriptions or headlines to encourage circulation, so sometimes those headlines don’t match with the articles’ content, and that can lead to misinformation.

Most people who first saw the list did exactly what most people do in the internet. Read the headlines – share. Reading is for losers, right? Because of this, the list has already been brought down, as she felt that people were misinterpreting it. She states that she doesn’t think people are actually reading the list and the context provided when they’re sharing it. She’s worried that the fake news list “might be perpetuating misinformation when that’s what it’s supposed to be trying to help”.

Personally, I think the latter is wholeheartedly true. But there is more to it.

There is something ominous about the term fake news. It makes my George Orwell’s 1984 radar tick.

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The problem with fake news as a term is that it acts as a Boolean. In our westernised worldview that is heavily based on science, fake and truth tend to be viewed as absolute values. Something that can be measured accurately as if we are measuring the velocity of a falling apple. Something, or a statement, can either be true, or false.

Reality however, is much more complex than that. Although click-bait articles often report extremely dubious claims on a range of topics, there might still be some truthfulness in certain aspects of the reporting. With satire websites on the other hand, this layer of truth is hidden behind the abstract veil of satire or sarcasm, and obscured with obvious misinformation whilst preserving the actual information and statement it is trying to make. When we read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we all know that we are not actually reading about the personal lives on real animals, but the form in which it is written makes the complex nature of things easier to understand. Satire uses Occam’s Razor, and acts as a model to reduce phenomena to its most basic forms, and is then able to twist certain aspects of the story around, decoupling it from the original context so that it is able to reveal that which is hard to bring to light with normal reporting.

More importantly, fake also implies that somebody is deliberately ‘faking’ something, as a means to (mis)guide people towards a certain opinion or direction. This is obviously the case for click-bait and satire. The former as a means to make money off gullible people who click to be caught by advertisement, the latter to steer cognition towards thoughts that are otherwise impossible to conjure.

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to teach people to be critical thinkers, than to silence opinions by branding it with an overarching term such as fake news

For the more ambiguous news sites and journalistic platforms that discuss information that is by many deemed to be conspiracy material, both click-bait and satire do not apply. They genuinely represent information that they deem accurate, just viewed from a different angle.

Zimdars states one the reasons she shared the list was that she was informed that when you Google search for ‘popular vote counts’, the first item that pops up was “70news.wordpress.com”, which according to her is a fake website, as it was stating that Hillary Clinton lost the popular vote.

According to the current tallies reported, Clinton indeed won the popular vote. However, most pre-election polls from the mainstream media also reported a 98% chance that Clinton would win. As a trained statistician and scientist, my alarm bells went berserk when the opposite happened. I therefore think it is not unwise to develop some suspicion to said sources. The thing is, 70news simply works with different information and chooses to highlight different sources. That doesn’t make it fake, but false at best. They made a case about illegal immigrants massively voting for the democratic party. Now I am not a lawyer nor do I have knowledge on American voting rights, but there have been concerns that this happened, and that it would be illegal. The influence that this would have would be significant, as ethnic minorities are the main voting base for democrats in America. There is no hard proof, but if you see how high the stakes are in modern politics (the total costs of the presidential campaign have been estimated to be 6.8 billion dollars), it’s not a crazy idea.

See, within media, there is always a filter, whether you like it or not. Even the most objective journalist is trapped in a maze of information of historical (re)writing, contemporary public opinion and the top down influence of management. You always have to chose which bits to show and which bits to obscure. A striking example is the following rather iconic picture – where the right was showed by CNN, and the left by Al Jazeera – originally taken from the picture in the middle. Together with the visual propaganda, a completely different narrative can be framed, that enforces policy of the status quo.

Media

 

As a response to the so called surge in fake news, president Obama recently stated : “If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”. That’s good and all, but the problem is that Obama – and any other president – are actively running propaganda programs under their administrations, and thus often spread fake news themselves (for a clarifying read that covers the topic, see this article from Stanford University). We often seem to forget that media has historically originated as the long arm of the state, to influence the people according to national and international policy. Your populace doesn’t feel like going to war whilst it is geo-politically profitable? Let the media run a campaign where it deliberately highlights certain aspects whilst ignoring or demonising others. Within politics and media, this is nothing new. Everyone is aware of the power of media and it’s intricate ties to politics and policy makers, yet most of us are somehow blind to see that the main stream media outlets might often be more fake than the dubious websites portrayed to be actual fake news websites.

The term fake news matters, because it is downright censorship in disguise, likely to be used in the same manner as the term conspiracy theory

For example, the American and European populace were by media campaigns lead to believe that going to war in Iraq would be a good thing for the Iraqi people. 13 years later, we’re anonymously embarrassed by the situation. The same thing is currently happening in Syria, where the main narrative is to save the Syrian people from the horrors of the regime, whilst America and NATO allies are the heroes, whilst probably doing more to destabilise the country than Assad ever could. The fact that the common go-to media outlets seem trustworthy, might thus more have to do with the fact that they have a certain template and feel to it that we’ve we have all been exposed to since birth, and thus seems and feels legitimate, whatever they write. That should not mean that we should actively make a divide between what is ‘fake’ and ‘truthful’, based primarily on the opinions of only one side of the game.

Instead of making a list of what is fake and what is not, and calling each other out on their fake-ness, we actually already have an entirely different tool at our disposal.

Our brains.

Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to teach people to be critical thinkers, than to silence opinions by branding it with an overarching term such as fake news, which discredits an incredibly big portion of human dialogue based on very vague criteria?

Furthermore, there are probably bigger online content problems that the world is facing. Click-bait and sponsored content ridden with ads are on the rise, dumbing down the average shown content on important news outlets. Whilst Facebook is also actively trying to fight fake news, they are completely neglecting the rise of distracting click & tag posts that show up in people’s feeds. An avid Facebook user myself, I’ve spent quite some time liking, disliking and following the things I am interested in. All in vein, as 50% of my feed is filled with random useless posts those linked below, simply because they spread like wildfire and get 130.000 comments. The same is happening to YouTube (excuse me for using a PewDiePie video to prove a point, but frankly, the guy is probably the most knowledgeable person on the platform).

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I really am not interested in this Facebook. Stop shoving it in my face.
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hahahahahaha so interesting

So, even if you’ve made it this far into my article, you might think: What does it matter? The term fake news matters, because it is downright censorship in disguise, likely to be used in the same manner as the term conspiracy theory (which was actually introduced by the CIA back in 1967 to downplay political opponents). Although conspiracy theorists obviously exist, and some are downright ridiculous, have no mounting evidence and balance on the edge of borderline schizophrenia, the term itself has had  a much larger impact than just silencing tin foil hat UFO abduction experts.

The term fake news is likely to follow the same course, when social networks are forced to flag and silence information that contain certain content. Currently, the big tech giants are already working together and sharing information to silence ‘extreme content’, where they refer to extreme content as terrorist information. It’s hard to argue that fighting terrorism is a bad thing, but if you think a little bit longer about the implications of this development, we could be in for a serious problem. The same technology allows for any type of content to be monitored, silenced or removed. And if that’s not creepy, I don’t know what is.

Fake news is not something organic that came up out of nowhere. The internet has been filled with dubious information since it’s birth. It is an calculated term, that might prove to be a dangerous as it is going to be deliberately used to silence opposition.

Next time you see an article that is hammering on the elimination of fake news, take that in mind.

 

Author: Ruben Boyd

My name is Ruben Boyd, and I am a first year graduate in the Cognitive Science Research track of the Artificial Intelligence Master at the VU - William James Graduate School. My roots lie in Psychology, and in 2014 I proudly obtained my Bachelor of Science at the VU Amsterdam.

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