“Don’t believe everything you read on the internet just because there’s a picture with a quote next to it.” – Abraham Lincoln
Do you really believe he said that? Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, long before the World Wide Web went live. When I Googled this quote, I found many pictures showing the same quote by Albert Einstein, George Washington, M. K. Gandhi, Charles Darwin, etc. Funny enough though this relates well to my experience and the use of common sense when you come across an interesting headline. Headlines are meant to grab a reader’s attention, and now that I have your attention, let me tell you why I love this quote.
This New Year’s evening while wishing my friends on social media, I received a message on WhatsApp from my uncle who is a farmer from a small village in India. The message read as follows “Bollywood’s renowned actor Nana Patekar has recently started “NAAM foundation” which works for welfare of drought affected farmers. The mission of NAAM foundation is to build a sustainable and progressive society by facilitating development in rural areas. You are requested to donate any amount that you could to following account details… and forward this message to all your friends.”
I am a great fan of Nana Patekar and his movies and was very tempted to help his organization with a donation. However, something did not feel right with this message and I started questioning its authenticity. How easy would it be to create this type of message and forward it on, with your own bank account details? I searched Google for “fake news” and found really interesting and frightening results.
Some fake news samples that I found:
As per BuzzFeed News during the recent USA presidential elections, the following top 4 fake stories went viral: (Sorted in order of their Facebook engagement)
- “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” – 960, 000
- “WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… then drops another bombshell! Breaking news” – 789,000
- “It’s over: Hillary’s ISIS Email just leaked & it’s worse than anyone could have imagined” – 754,000
- “Just Read the Law: Hillary is disqualified from holding any federal office” – 701,000
During the last three months of the US presidential campaign, fake election stories like the ones listed above on Facebook generated more engagement than top stories from trusted news hubs like New York Times, Washington Post, and others.
In India, after the demonetization of ?500 and ?1000 currency notes, fake news videos, messages and stories went viral on social media, that the new currency notes have been equipped with spy and tracking technology. Another fake news example that went viral was “As per NASA, heavy rain is expected in Chennai, more than the level of the present rain.”
One other news provider, Express UK, on 6th Jan 2017, posted a fake WhatsApp message stating “From Saturday morning WhatsApp will become chargeable. If you have at least 10 contacts then send them this message to renew your membership free of cost.” This also went viral.
Why are fake news articles created?
Fake news is created for a variety of reasons.
During the 2016 US elections, fake news articles were created by a set of teenagers living in Veles, Macedonia. This is a town with a population of 50,000 people that have a very high unemployment rate. These teenagers created over 100 fake websites to spread fake news and earned good money from advertising revenue. Before the U.S. presidential election, they gained revenue from fake medical advice websites.
Fake news about celebrities are created to increase their followers and to create the illusion of popularity. Similarly fake accounts of celebrities are created on social media to share these types of articles to make them more believable.
Some websites create fake news with eye-catching pictures to increase traffic and eventually gain revenue from “clickbait”.
Clickbait refers to web content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy. Relying on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching thumbnail pictures to attract click-throughs and to encourage forwarding over social media, thus earning them good advertising revenue. Clickbait is also used to influence people during elections.
How do we identify fake news?
Back in the day, our news came from newspapers, magazines, radio and TV channels. These media channels are run by regulated organizations. This would ensure that they have proper evidence before publishing their news. On social media, content can be created by anyone, including someone who could have wrongful intentions.
Unfortunately there are no specific processes set in stone, to check the authenticity of a message or article, but there are definitely ways to confirm them.
- Always check the source of the news. If the post is shared from a website that you have never heard of before, then it could be fake. Try Googling the title or phrase of the article to check if the news has also been posted by reputable sources like BBC, CNN etc.
- You can also use websites such as snopes.com, factcheck.org and Politifact.com to determine the authenticity of the news. Sometimes they may be limited to specific countries.
- Go beyond the headline. Before you like/share/comment, read the content of the article.
- Ensure that you follow official accounts of politicians, news channels, celebrities etc. on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
- Use common sense as I have described at the start of this article.
- Look out for errors in spelling, grammar, incorrect case, etc.
- Avoid media bias and form your own opinions. Everyone has one or more celebrities, politicians, scientists, and/or social activists as their inspiration. If you see a message or article showing a photo of your favorite celebrity supporting an election candidate, then don’t get influenced easily without knowing the facts.
What are Facebook, Google and governments doing to stop fake news?
- Facebook is developing a solution which will flag hoaxes and fake news.
- Facebook may also start banning ads from sites with deceptive content.
- Google has announced that they will stop fraudulent websites from earning revenue through its AdSense program.
- The government of Germany is considering the imposition of a fine on social media companies like Facebook up to € 500,000 for each day that the platform leaves a fake story online. This should apply pressure on social media companies to come up with solutions to stop fake news.
How easy is it to create and spread fake news?
I would like to take you through the simple steps to create fake news. The purpose of this is to show how anybody can easily create fake content and spread it within seconds. I WILL REQUEST READERS NOT TO TRY THIS. I WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE IF YOU TRY THIS AND GET ARRESTED OR HURT FROM ACTIONS THAT OTHERS MAY TAKE TOWARDS YOU 🙂
Now that we have the legalities out of the way. Let us imagine that I want to create some fake news about “Jon Snow being one of best batsmen in the world”. I would follow these simple steps to do it:
- Download the Yazzy app from the Google Play store. The Yazzy app is not available on the Apple AppStore. But WhatsPrank and WhatsFake are available to create fake WhatsApp conversations on Apple devices.
- Open Yazzy app, select Facebook Status.
- Fill out the name field as “Jon Snow”, the status field as “Dear Fans, I’m extremely disappointed to announce that I will not be able to represent South Africa at the Test series due to my knee injury.” and the number of reactions as “1500” selecting the “Sigh” emoticon.
- Choose a profile image for “Jon Snow”. I can easily get it from their real Facebook account.
- Tap on the right arrow in top right corner.
- Then tap on the refresh button in the top right corner to get an image that looks identical to a genuine Facebook post.
- I can download or share this image from the same app.
It hardly takes 10 minutes to create a fake post.
Social networking works through the use of network and graph theories. This means that I would post/forward it to my friends and my friends will post/forward it to their friends. In this way, a fake post can reach hundreds of people exponentially within seconds.
For example, I have around 600 friends on Facebook. Let us consider on average that all my friends have 200 friends in their friend list. If I post the fake image I just created on my Facebook page, then it will be visible to all 600 of my friends. If half of my friends share this post then it will be visible to all their friends which are 300 x 200 = 60,000 viewers worldwide.
After this, I finally have my New Year’s resolution. I will play my part to prevent fake news from spreading and train the digitally naive to verify their sources before re-posting fake stories. Awareness and education are the best ways to combat fake news. Google, Facebook and the likes will attempt to prevent it, but this is no easy task. Let us play our part to understand our social and digital responsibility and make our digital world a much safer place.
Wish you a very Happy, Bright and Social New Year! Keep it Real!