Humans are “informavores”, that is, they heavily depend on information.
According to Wikipedia , fake news “is a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.” The expressions fabricated news, pseudo-news, alternative facts and false news denote the same concept. Fabricated news overlaps with other information distortions, such as misinformation (false or misleading) and disinformation (purposely deceiving false). This type of news is not written by mistake or because of lack of knowledge, but with the clear intent to mislead in order to damage an entity, organisation or person, or for financial and/or political gain.
The practice is not new. In the 13th century BC, Rameses the Great spread lies by portraying the Battle of Kadesh as an Egyptian’s breath-taking victory. In 1475, a false story in Trent claimed that a Jew had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian; the false rumour continued to proliferate in spite of Pope Sixtus IV efforts to end it. The expression “fake news” is also not new: in modern time the term has been used at least for almost a century.
As more COVID-19 vaccines emerge, a conspiracy theory has spanned the world by claiming that the coronavirus pandemic is a cover for a plan supported by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to implant traceable microchips. BBC has run a Reality Check on this fabricated news and cites a YouGov poll of 1,640 people showing that 28% of Americans believe in this conspiracy theory despite social media companies removing or labelling it as ‘misleading information’. The article ‘Hundreds dead’ because of Covid-19 Misinformation’ presents the extent of the damage and concludes with: “The achievement of an effective coronavirus vaccine could be completely undermined by misinformation, doctors told the BBC’s anti-disinformation team”.
But not every false information is fake news and here is an example. Governments, military, banks, to name only three institutions, use encryption to communicate. A powerful method, called end-to-end encryption, prevents third parties from accessing data during the transfer from one end to another. It theoretically guarantees that the data encrypted on the sender’s system can only be decrypted by the legitimate recipient. Applications like WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption to guarantee that messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents and calls cannot fall into the wrong hands; Apple uses the same method in its products. End-to-end encryption is based on a solid mathematical protocol that can’t simply be overturned by government agencies, criminals or even companies using it. This useful tool can be used in a variety of scopes including, unfortunately and inevitably, to protect crime; in this last case it undermines the work of law enforcement agencies trying to access messages exchanged by malefactors. As a consequence, government agencies rushed to call for access to encrypted information, without understanding that if encryption is weakened for some, then it is weakened for all. In this context an Australian Prime Minister, M. Turnbull, famously proclaimed that “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia”.
The proliferation of fabricated news is to a large extent tolerated, if not subtly encouraged, by media outlets, particularly online ones: the more viewers they attract, the more money they generate through advertising revenues. Huge profits are made because false, sensational stories attract more readers than true reports. Political arenas around the world are infested with false news, particularly during elections. This process seriously undermines fact-based media coverage, makes it more difficult for journalists to cover significant news stories and, ultimately, obstructs democracy.
The practice has spread and is ubiquitous. The Internet plays a major role in this process. By liking, sharing, and searching for information, social bots—programs impersonating humans on social media designed to influence the course of discussions and/or the opinions of participants—can magnify the spread of fabricated news by several orders of magnitude. The number of social bots is not negligible: 2018 estimates—based on observable features such as sharing behaviour, number of ties, and linguistic features—indicate that 9-15% of active Twitter accounts are bots and no less than 60 million bots are infesting Facebook. The same year Twitter has shut down up to 70 million fake and suspicious accounts , but the “cat and mouse” game continues. Social bots operate from every part of the world, including from Romania.
What can one do to stem the flow and influence of fabricated news?
In October 2018 the British government decided not to use the term fake news because it is “a poorly-defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes.” To curb the rising influence of fabricated news, Germany, Malaysia, France, Russia and Singapore have passed legislation that makes the creation and distribution of deliberately false information a crime. But using the law to fight fabricated news is not without risks: human rights activists, legal experts, computer scientists and others fear such laws have the potential to be misused to restrict free speech and to block, intentionally or not, legitimate online posts and websites.
How to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate content? Is it possible to automatically (that is, algorithmically) separate fake news from true news? The problem is semantic not syntactic, so i) solutions to the first question require a multidisciplinary effort, and ii) the answer to the second question is mostly negative (algorithms excel in solving syntactical problems but fail on most semantical ones) in spite of efforts of some big tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook.
There are a few ways to fight fake news. One approach is to educate and empower individuals to recognise fabricated news, by identifying factors symptomatic for such news. Below are such factors, but the list is far from exhaustive. Fake news a) cannot be verified (it is not referenced or it is linked to articles in the same website or to inexistent links), b) appeals to emotion not facts, c) appears in just a few of places, typically one, d) is written by authors whose credentials cannot be verified with trustful sources, e) is posted on websites known for propagating fabricated news or extremes views. An alternative option is to visit credible fact-checking websites like PolitiFact, Snopes and BBC Reality Check or news media, such as the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, that evaluate factual claims of news reports. Yet another approach is to implement structural changes aimed at preventing exposure of individuals to fabricated news.
All solutions are obstructed in part by human nature. People prefer information that confirms their pre-existing attitudes and choices (selective exposure), tend to believe information consistent with their prior convictions (confirmation bias), are inclined to accept information that gratify them (desirability bias), and are reluctant to consider information contrary to their partisan and/or ideological beliefs. Repeating false information, even in a fact-checking context, is a powerful tool that increases their likelihood of being accepted as true.
Another difficulty is the gulf between experts and laypeople created by illiteracy and the misunderstanding of the meaning of democracy. The term democracy refers to a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing rules. Its cornerstones include non-exclusively equality, membership, consent and voting. “Every single vote in a democracy is equal to every other, but every single opinion is not.” The problem starts when a false notion democracy is interpreted as “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”, “they are just alternative views”. The relation between experts and citizens is not “democratic”. Of course, experts can be wrong, and there are many famous examples. But imagine the effects produced by a false idea promoted by a famous or powerful person, and spread by an army of bots! We have discussed above the deadly effects of fabricated news related to the recent pandemic. Here is another example: During the 2016 leave debate many experts from both EU and UK argued with facts and data against Brexit, but they were dismissed as enemies of the people. M. Grove, currently Minister for the Cabinet Office, “argued that facts were not as important as the feelings of the British voter. ‘I think people in this country’, he sniffed, ‘have had enough of experts’.” 16
There are few things that command a large agreement: fighting fake news seems to be one.