PHOTO: Gage Skidmore; Screencaps from Twitter
This article first appeared in CJFE's 2016-17 Review of Free Expression in Canada.
The global phenomenon that has become a weapon against freedom of speech.
By Jane Lytvynenko
There is a recipe to fake news, whether it’s cooked up at home or abroad. The fabricated story needs to be close enough to the truth to be believable, but outrageous enough to be clickable. Brad Pitt is moving to your hometown. A car crash in your small, rural community claims the lives of two moms and three children. The Pope endorses Donald Trump for president.
Then a familiar pattern plays out. The author posts the fake story to their Facebook page. The members of a handful of groups are either outraged or delighted at the headline. After that, the poster’s job is done, and the story either rampages through social media, bringing ad revenue with it, or goes unnoticed.
Not everyone agrees on a formal definition of fake news. For Craig Silverman, the media editor of BuzzFeed News, it’s fabricated information used for financial gain. Silverman has been reporting on errors in the media for a decade, but recently his beat evolved with the rise of fake news stories. Silverman says errors made by the media or news a reader ideologically disagrees with doesn’t fall under the fake news moniker. (Full disclosure: the author of this story works closely with Silverman at BuzzFeed News.)
First Draft, a coalition of news outlets in Europe, set out to better define and categorize online misinformation. It came up with seven different types of misleading stories, which included satire, stories with a false context, and flat-out fabricated content.
The nuance of definitions is often lost on readers who just want to be informed about current events. A Pew Research Center poll released in December 2016 found 60 per cent of American adults say fake news has caused “a great deal” of confusion. Although over a third of responders said they are “very confident” they can spot fake news, BuzzFeed’s own research challenged that perception. A poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs found that 75 per cent of American adults who were familiar with a fake news headline viewed the story as accurate.
More recent research from Oxford University looked at links shared on Twitter in the battleground state of Michigan before election day. It found users were equally as likely to tweet a real news story as a fake one.
It’s not just the readers who are confused. In December 2016, the defence ministers of Israel and Pakistan had a tense exchange on Twitter because one of them fell for a fake news story.
“Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send [sic] ground troops into Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack,” the story’s headline still reads.
“Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh.Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too AH,” Pakistan’s defence secretary tweeted as a response.
Fake News as a Political Weapon
Almost as quickly as the fake news phenomenon broke into the mainstream, politicians weaponized it. Donald Trump led the way, calling CNN and The New York Times fake news both in tweets and during a press conference. The full weight of the president’s false claim is being felt by established media, whose comment sections and Twitter mentions are filled with readers parroting Trump’s statement. His supporters instead turn to other sources like Breitbart News, InfoWars, The Gateway Pundit and other websites that tend to disregard facts in favour of partisanship or conspiracy theories.
The most notable example is Pizzagate, a completely false theory peddled by InfoWars host Alex Jones. According to Jones and other believers, there is a child trafficking ring in the basement of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria (in Washington, DC), which has ties to the Democratic party. The theory is rooted in the WikiLeaks release of emails belonging to John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman. Conspiracy theorists claim the emails contain coded messages. In March, Jones apologized for some of his statements, but not before a man with a gun visited the pizzeria to rescue the non-existent trafficked children. Nobody was hurt, and the gunman himself realized the conspiracy theory was false, but the incident is both frightening and illustrative.
Other politicians, including Canadian ones, are also redefining fake news to suit their political needs. Although fake news is not as widespread north of the border as it is in the United States, the phenomenon is spilling over.
“Politicians’ attempts to discredit legitimate journalism as ‘fake news’ in the United States is a deeply troubling trend,” says Tom Henheffer, executive director of CJFE. “Not only is it eroding trust in the media in the U.S., but it’s having a knock-on effect in Canada, where trust in journalism is also suffering.”
But the press is not sitting on its hands, either. In February, a state senator from Colorado called a paper in his district, The Daily Sentinel, fake news after it published an accurate but unfavourable report. The Sentinel’s publisher, Jay Seaton, has vowed to sue Sen. Ray Scott for libel. “A tried-and-true method for avoiding that accountability is to undermine the credibility of the speaker. When Sen. Scott asserts that The Daily Sentinel is ‘fake news,’ he intends to diminish The Sentinel as a purveyor of reliable information,” Seaton wrote in a column.
“Bring it on Jay, if you lie it blows back,” Scott shot back on Twitter.
A Global Threat
Globally, the term fake news has become a common weapon in authoritarian regimes. Russia is, perhaps, the best example. The country’s media, especially TV and newspapers, is tightly controlled and now the government is attempting to influence public perception of foreign media as well. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs created an entire website dedicated to fake news, but the majority of the articles “debunked” on it are from legitimate news sources like The New York Times, Bloomberg and others.
Germany has also been a battlefront in the war against misinformation as campaigning ramps up for the federal election this September. Fake articles, largely targeting Chancellor Angela Merkel, spread racist and xenophobic falsehoods about refugees and migrants. One Syrian refugee took Facebook to court after a captioned photo of him and Merkel claimed he was a terrorist. Facebook was found not guilty, but Germany is now drafting a law to fine social networks up to €50 million if they fail to remove fake news.
Facebook and Google are also rolling out tools to fight misinformation, a lot of which comes from Eastern European countries like Macedonia where creators just want to make some cash. Google’s AdSense blocks fake news sites, and it scrubs a lot of the most popular fake news sites from search results under the “News” tab. Facebook has also rolled out tools to help users spot fake news. There’s no telling what will work as fake news writers come up with workarounds to keep bringing in profit.
One author, known as Busta Troll, noticed how relentless other fake news moguls can be. A self-identified liberal whose site seeks to expose how gullible Trump supporters are, he regularly has his work stolen by Macedonians and others. (Fake news is a truly non-partisan issue that targets both liberals and conservatives.) A BuzzFeed News investigation found his work was often duplicated. Busta Troll has tried sending the plagiarists Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices and writing articles about it, but nothing has worked.
“I tried to work with one of them, but the stuff they put on my page was all ‘black thug gets what’s coming to him’ and ‘Islamic terrorist rapes eight-year-old bride to death in Wisconsin,’” he told BuzzFeed News. “It was over the top.”
Jane Lytvynenko (@JaneLytv) is a BuzzFeed News reporter based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on the CBC and in Maclean’s and other publications.