By Lena Williams
Worried the spread of fake news might sway the country’s upcoming presidential elections, Brazil recently established a task force of law enforcement and intelligence officials to develop strategies to prevent fake news from being produced and to limit its reach once misleading content starts circulating online.
The Australian Parliament initiated an investigation into the spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential race in the United States, which prompted government officials in Australia to consider imposing a penalty on anyone who spreads fake news to the public.
In January, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed legislation that would empower France’s media watchdog agency to combat the dissemination of fake news during elections and mandate more transparency for sponsored content. Macron’s proposal would also allow a judge to delete content or block access to websites found guilty of propagating fake news.
Across the U.S., a growing number of media companies, public advocates, social media platforms and political leaders are beginning to crackdown on fake news that is intended to disrupt, divide, inflame and misinform the American people about national, state and local elections, current events, commercial products and even pop culture icons.
We’ve all seen it. Stories that begged credulity: Did Sylvester Stallone, the movie star, die? Was Hillary Clinton’s campaign operating a secret child-sex ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, DC? Is it true that a captured Islamic State leader’s cell phone contained the phone numbers of several world leaders, including Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Was David Hoggs, the 17-year-old high school student a “crisis actor” who was coached and paid by the media and advertisers to speak out against gun control in the wake of the mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month?
Examples abound of fake news stories that have been posted online, linked to mainstream media articles, shared by social media platforms, only to be debunked as myths. Some of the stories have resulted in egregious harm to reputations and have resulted in personal threats. After the false claims of the Clinton’s alleged child-sex ring was seized upon by right-wing media outlets, the staff at a Washington pizzeria was subjected to an array of threats and a man fired shots into the restaurant, claiming he believed child sex slaves were being held captive inside.
There now appears to be a growing international campaign across the political spectrum to put a stop to the proliferation of fake news and to provide access to trusted information in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous countries, where fake news is endemic.
The family of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was fatally shot in 2016 during what police say was a botched robbery, filed suit against Fox News last August accusing the network of intentionally inflicting emotional distress on them by inaccurately reporting that investigators had found evidence that he had been the source of thousands of DNC emails leaked to WikiLeaks.
Politicians around the world have proposed legislation to make the distribution of fake news a crime.
Facing mounting criticism that their sites had been exploited by outside actors to spread fake news and misinformation that may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook, Google and Twitter have begun to implement oversight and monitoring measures to restrict the posting of fake news to their websites. Several media companies and public advocate groups have taken steps to educate the public on ways to distinguish fake news from legitimate news.
And organizations like The News-Guild-CWA, which represents thousands of journalists in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico, are equipping reporters with talking points about the roles and responsibilities of journalists to inform the public. Last year, The News-Guild’s Right2Report campaign designed a card for journalists that contains helpful hints reporters can use to educate the public about the way “real reporters” produce “real news.” The pocket-size card notes that reporters “verify the information we receive, get multiple sources to confirm information, check public records, go where the story is to see for ourselves, ask lots of questions, and adhere to high ethical standards.”
In an attempt to thwart an advertising boycott, assuage distress and avoid a user backlash, Marc Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, recently deployed 14,000 people and artificial intelligence to stop false news and offensive behavior from being posted to the social media website. Zuckerberg and officials at Google and Twitter committed to using new “trust indicators” to help users vet the reliability of articles that appear in news feeds.
Fact-checking websites like Snopes.com and FactCheck.org have posted guides to spotting and avoiding fake news websites, among them, considering the sources of information as well as the rapidity at which the stories spread and whether the claims made are so outlandish that you find yourself questioning their authenticity.
After the 2016 US election and the run-up to the election in Germany, Facebook partnered with independent fact-checkers to label inaccurate news, warning readers before sharing it. If a story has been flagged or disputed, it is reviewed by third-party fact-checkers and, if proven false, the post cannot be promoted or used in advertising.
Fake news not only undermines serious media coverage, it also erodes public confidence in journalists and the work they do as members of the Fourth Estate. An analysis by BuzzFeed found that the top 20 fake news stories about the 2016 U.S. presidential election received more engagement on Facebook than the top 20 news stories on the election from 19 major media outlets.
In order to win the hearts and minds of the public, the media and public advocates are also finding ways to educate readers, listeners and viewers so that they will become more discerning consumers of real news versus fake news.
There are also those who are hitting the disseminators of fake news where it may hurt the most: in the pockets.
In February, Unilever, one of the world’s largest advertisers and manufacturer of products Dove, Lipton, Pepsodent and Ben & Jerrys ice cream, threatened to pull advertising from digital platforms like Facebook and Google saying they have become a “swamp” of fake news, racism, sexism and extremism.
“We cannot continue to prop up a digital supply chain which at times is little better than a swamp in terms of transparency,” Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, said at an advertising conference in California on Feb. 12, 2018.
Weed said the company has received complaints from its consumers about toxic content, racism and fake news on digital platforms. He said his company plans to address the issue “and we are going to prioritize our investment. This is not something that can be brushed aside or ignored.”
Echoing comments heard across social and political spectrums about the rise of fake news, Weed told conferees the proliferation of objectionable content on social media and a lack of protections for children is “eroding trust, harming users and undermining democracies.”
Although fake news has existed for thousands of years, Donald Trump has seized the term, politicizing it as a weapon to distort the truth, insult news organizations, and undermine the public’s trust in the media. Politicians like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Slovakia Prime Minister Robert Fico, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and China President Xi Jinping have embraced the term to foment dissension, crackdown on journalists, and, in some instances, restrict Internet use.
But such abuses of power should not deter the campaigns against fake news. While no one believes these myriad attempts will completely eradicate fake news, they may limit its spread.