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  • Writer's pictureStavros Papagianneas

How to Tackle Fake News

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

fake news, disinformation, propaganda

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, 64% of the citizens in the EU are worried about fake news or false information being used as a weapon. 57% say that it is getting harder to tell whether a piece of news was produced by a respected media organisation.

"Fake news" was Collins Dictionary’s official Word of the Year for 2017. However, fake news is nothing new. It has been causing mass hysteria, harm, and even death since as far back as 13th century BC when Rameses spread lies and propaganda that described the Battle of Kadesh as a remarkable victory for the Egyptians. We can even blame fabrications for why in 30 BC, Marc Antony ultimately killed himself when false news of Cleopatra’s suicide reached him.

Fake news plagues us today more than ever with the deliberate spread of misinformation upsetting elections and political decisions. Facebook, the largest social network on the planet, has to answer to increased concerns over its users spread of hate speech and propaganda.

The revelation that 50 million people had their Facebook profiles harvested by data firm Cambridge Analytica so it could target them with political ads, is a huge blow to the social network. Fundamental questions arise about Facebook's approach to data protection and disclosure. Can the social network adequately secure our most personal data? And if that data is misused, is our democracy still safe? Do we need a voters protection legislation like we have in place for consumers ?

This month, the Observer and the New York Times alleged that Facebook had known since two years that Cambridge Analytica collected millions of its users’ profile data and used it without their consent to influence the Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Facebook is the market leader in social networking sites. It drives gigantic traffic and attention to the news but fails in the field of civic information. Facebook has become a global vehicle for fake news, misinformation and propaganda. Some of it is driven by ideology, but most are driven by the economic incentive structure Facebook has created.

Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote in his regular birthday letter that "the web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today".

"What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared," he added.

Pope Francis is another victim of fake news. He is known to never speak of electoral campaigns. However, in 2016, news spread that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump and the utterly made-up story became one of the most widely shared pieces of fake news.

Not to be confused with satire or parody, fake news intends to damage an entity to gain socially, financially or politically. It has become a worldwide phenomenon, spreading through the use of social media platforms and fake websites that often impersonate credible news sources.

How to prevent the spread of fake news

Social media outlets in France were overflowing with fake news prior to the 2017 presidential election. This led to deleting 30,000 Facebook accounts in France that were found to be associated with fake political information. Nevertheless, tackling fake news doesn’t require only to stand up against fake websites or demand governments to take action.

The reality is that the spread of fake news can be blamed on anyone of us. While fake news have the malicious intent to cause disruption, it is ultimately regular people who are mindlessly sharing links without validating the source and dispersing the lies. While this is not their intent, the fact remains that the responsibility to stop the spread of fake news is also the responsibility of all citizens.

Here’s what we can do to help stop the spread of disinformation today:

1.  Read beyond the headline

Many people read the headline and hit the share button without reading the entire article. Sometimes, reading a piece of news to the end will send off warning signs that it was fabricated. Timelines may not add up, or its tone sounds biased.

2.  Research the sources

Many fake websites have names that sound just like credible news websites. Know the official website name and compare it to the source of the news. In 2016, Google took action against 340 fake sites and kicked out almost 200 publishers for misrepresentation and other offences. While Google has done their due diligence, bringing down these fake news sites can be accredited to the masses of people who reported them after confirming their suspicions that they were fake sites.

3.  Share responsibly

It pays to be skeptical. Before you hit that share button, be sure that you know exactly what you are sharing. Carelessly distributing information, no matter how good your intentions are, will only perpetuate the cycle.

4.  Create & support sustainable media

The EU High-level Expert Group (HLEG) set up by the European Commission, since January 2018, to tackle the phenomenon of fake news and disinformation, published its final report this month. The report includes a set of actions to safeguard the diversity and sustainability of European news media. Developing tools and strategies for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies is paramount.

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