December 17th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Much food for reflection in a single Christmas carol

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition limps through year of frustrations

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The left's whitewash of Fidel Castro

THE MEDIA Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

WA LEGISLATION Foetal homicide reform a very small step forward

SOCIETY A proposal to assist the victims of sexual abuse

AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT The financial and social costs of cramming ourselves into just five coastal cities

MUSIC What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP


CINEMA Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

BOOK APPRAISAL Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue

BOOK REVIEW A continuing analysis

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Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

by Chris McCormack

News Weekly, December 17, 2016

Do some news stories have you reeling in anger or disbelief? Perhaps you’ve succumbed to the claimed increasing incidence of fake news stories. According to Buzzfeed News, fake news is being shared online at far greater rates than factual articles.

An article that appeared on The Political Insider with the headline, “Wikileaks confirms: Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS”, was shared 789,000 times. It was the top-shared news story on Facebook.

Deutsche Welle’s Neil King and Gabriel Borrud reported: “According to BuzzFeed, fake election news stories from hoax sites generated more engagement on Facebook than top election stories from the 19 major news outlets combined during the final three months of the presidential campaign.” What is not immediately apparent, is the methodology that BuzzFeed relied on in order to separate fake from real news.


Fake news, real consequences

Illustrating the impact of fake news was the case of Green Party chairman in Saxony, Germany, Yorgun Kha’zix, who was accused via fake news on Facebook that he had orchestrated an attack on an anti-Islam Legida movement security guard. Within 24 hours, he was targeted at his house and was subsequently assaulted on a train by irate commuters, and the police told him to leave the train for his own safety. He vehemently denied all the claims in the article., the creation of Karolin Schwarz and Lutz Helm, maps a plethora of claimed fake news stories and their locations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and attempts to refute them with articles from alternate sources. At last count, there were 434 supposedly debunked fake news stories on their site.

Melissa Zimdars, a professor of communications and media at Merrimack College, Massachusetts, who has published a list of 130 false, misleading, clickbait-y, and satirical “news” sources, says that these untrustworthy news sources are being shared at greater rates than real news. She maintains that the situation is complicated by the fact that there is a proliferation of not just fake websites, but ones that blend fake, opinion and real news stories.

Zimdars points out that Facebook tends to be an echo-chamber for people’s pre-conceptions by using their browsing history in order to target them with stories reflecting their biases, which are then shared, resulting in increased page views, and revenue for Facebook coffers. She says that one way of avoiding the proliferation of fake news is for people to actually read the article, before sharing it based merely on a sensational or click-bait headline.

She suggests that there are clues that will help you recognise news sites or stories as fakes. The clues include: stories that make you really angry, website names that end in “lo” or “”, odd domain names, lack of author attribution, bad web design and use of ALL CAPS. News organisations that let bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands, or if the website encourages you to “DOX” individuals are also clues to fakes.

She also suggest checking Wikipedia or Snopes on information about the source of a story. She points out that checking a story to see if it is reported elsewhere in reputable news sources is an obvious measure to verify a story’s authenticity.

Apparently, Zimdars is from the far left, so many of the sites listed may not necessarily be peddling fake news, but merely strongly opinionated content to which Zimdars objects.

Indeed, author Scott Shackford describes the list as “awful”, saying it does not discriminate between false, satirical and opinionated news. Shackford is one of many commentators who see the list as an attempt to discredit legitimate sites that have a right-wing or far right-wing bent, which comprise the majority of the list.

A reporter for WND, one of the websites named on the list, questioned why nearly none of the major news agencies that published the list as almost gospel, questioned the political leanings of Zimdar. WND asserted that after they published the article by Chelsea Schilling, Zimdars removed her list, although versions of it were still circulating in the mainstream media and online.

Is the “fake news” list just an example of fake news?

One is left wondering whether this list was just another attempt by the left to shut down their ideological opponents.

BuzzFeed revealed that a fake story on World Politicus entitled, “Your prayers have been answered”, purported that Hillary Clinton would be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal. It generated 140,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.

It was just one example of over 100 active (40 found no-longer active) U.S. politics websites set up in the Macedonian town of Veles, where the high number of unemployed youth are cashing in on this phenomenon. The largest of these sites have Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers.

BuzzFeed claimed that the most successful stories were nearly all false or misleading. For the young creators of these sites, it is purely economically driven, not ideological, as the creators had tested fake articles targeting both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, but found that pro-Trump stories gained more reaction, and therefore generated more profits.

In Brazil, another example of fake news going viral, according to BuzzFeed, arose from the impeachment of then President Dilma Rousseff. The top 10 fake news stories generated 3.9 million engagements on Facebook, while the top 10 real stories garnered 2.7 million.

As part of the so-called “car wash” scandal, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who is running for Brazil’s presidency in 2018, was falsely implicated in the scandal by news site Folha Brasil, which reports only fake news and whose name is similar to the real, Folha de Sao Paolo newspaper. This fake story was shared 596,000 times, which may have jeopardised his chances of election to the presidency.

A preference for fake news

The influence of fake news stories, once shared on Facebook, can be substantial. Pew Research found that in May, 2016, 44 per cent of Americans received their news from Facebook, while 62 per cent of adults got their news from social media.

A 2003 Gallup poll found that 54 per cent of Americans had trust in the mainstream media. That had declined to 32 per cent by 2016. Of 18–49 year olds, 26 per cent trusted mainstream media, while 38 per cent of over 50s had trust.

This may in part explain the tendency – not just among Americans, but worldwide – towards people seeking alternate forms of news media. As mainstream news sources toe the politically correct line, act as ideologues or apologists for the established political elites or show clear bias towards one candidate or party, punters turn away and seek out news articles or sites that reflect their worldview.

While dismissing the idea that Facebook may have in part been responsible for a Trump victory, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has now reacted to the supposed growing anger and mistrust of Facebook content. Facebook, along with Google, will no longer allow fake or phony sites to use the adtech platforms to sell ads on their sites.

The question is whether this move will really curb fake news, and whether purely fake news sites will be banned, or will the ban be extended towards sites with content deemed at odds with Facebook’s values.

The raison d’etre of fake or misleading news generally falls into four categories: satirical, economic, propaganda and criminally malicious, according to The Conversation’s Vincent O’Donnell. Websites such as The Onion and Australia’s own Betoota Advocate are two of many that fall into the satire category. The Macedonian-generated websites were clearly established for revenue rather than political purposes. While propaganda or ideologically driven sites abound, from both the left and right side of politics, some of these could even go so far as to employ criminally malicious content in order to further their cause.

In the nebulous world of fake and blended news, attempting to make sense of the claim that Russia may have had a hand in swinging the U.S. election is fraught with difficulty. Is the claim simply a pro-Clinton attempt to deflect claims of scandals that she has been involved in as no more than a Russian propaganda smear?

Elements of the left media claim certainty of a Russian plot while others attempt to debunk the theory, pointing out that, rather than a grand conspiracy, stories that may have originated from, or were circulated through, Russian sources were simply picked up by internet users and shared exponentially like any other fake stories, regardless of their origin.

Matthew Ingram, in a Fortune magazine article, claims that the two “independent researchers” claiming to have unearthed widespread Russian involvement (and used as evidence of Russian involvement in a Washington Post article) are questionable entities. One, he maintains, is associated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, known for its hawkish stance on U.S.-Russian relations; and the other, PropOrNot, is almost unknown – its website does not list anyone associated with it, not even the report’s researchers.

While Russian Government involvement in the dissemination of fake news is entirely feasible, to what extent is less clear, lost in the murky web of claim and counter-claim from interested parties.

Can the incidence of fake and semi-fake news be stemmed? While reining in news sources that publish fake news is nigh on impossible, these articles go viral courtesy of sharing on social media sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. Efforts by these to curb fake news could go a long way to combating their spread.

But has the problem been overblown by the left? Is the social media sites’ response a genuine attempt to ban verified fake news sources or an imposition of censorship on the news sources of their ideological opponents? Time will tell if such efforts make a dent in the volume of blatantly dishonest news, or delve into the Orwellian world of censorship of non-approved news.

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