Fake news – the scourge of Social Media?

“It’s now clear that so-called ‘fake news’ can have real world consequences”Hillary Clinton said last week in one of her first speeches since her US Presidential campaign defeat. “I think fake news is a cancer on the media business and unfortunately, it’s very popular on social media” according to Fox News anchor Howard Kurtz. So is social media really to blame for the recent proliferation of fake news and how serious is the problem?

Clinton was speaking at a ceremony for outgoing Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid but took the opportunity to issue a rallying cry to stamp out the epidemic of fake news before it becomes a palpable physical threat:

“This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk. Lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities. It’s imperative that leaders from the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives”

Although she didn’t refer to it exactly, many believe she was referencing the now infamous “Pizzagate” story where it was wrongly claimed that a paedophile ring was operating out of the Comet pizza restaurant in Washington which involved senior figures from the Democratic Party, including Clinton herself. This fake story then in turn prompted a man to go to the restaurant brandishing a rifle on the basis that he wanted to (in his own words) “self-investigate” the news reports.

No doubt Hillary is also still reeling from the fact that her Presidential campaign was marred by a series of hoax stories. An analysis by Buzzfeed discovered that on Facebook, fake election news stories actually outnumbered real election news stories. Many of these professionally presented news items ran lurid stories (e.g. Clinton sold weapons to ISIS) which purported to be factual but were wholly untrue.

If fake news could be partly responsible for the outcome of the U.S Presidential election and can incite people to become vigilantes then maybe the problem could be significantly more serious than it initially appears.

Social media has been targeted as a prime source of these mocked-up stories and there have been growing calls for these online platforms to take a much more robust stance on vetting what is published on them. Clinton conceded that Silicon Valley was “starting to grapple with the challenge and threat” but also added that both the public and private sector had to do much more to regulate the flow of bogus reporting.

However, this isn’t just an issue isolated to the US and the Presidential election. In a recent article by Michael Safi in The Guardian, he highlights that this trend is rapidly becoming a global problem citing similar issues in countries such as Germany, India, Brazil and China. In Australia for example, concerns over halal certification led to a masked campaign of pervasive Islamophobia which found a domain to flourish on Facebook. The Boycott Halal group has almost 100,000 members on Facebook and in late 2014 they shared a satirical news article, giving the impression it was actually true. Despite that particular post being later deleted, the Facebook page remains and continues to proffer views that have no basis in fact.

In a Wall Street Journal article the writer, Jack Nicas, condemns the advertising industry for inadvertently funding these fake sites by placing their clients brands on them. It’s estimated that these sites can generate an income of tens of thousands of dollars each month. Nicas cites an example from Fiat-Chrysler who recently ran an ad for one of their trucks on a sham news item claiming that Yoko Ono had an affair with Hillary Clinton in the 1970’s. Google insist that they are working hard on avoiding placing ads on sites with “deceptive or misrepresentative” content. However it seems that their attempts are somewhat flawed given that online ads for their very own new Pixel smartphones have apparently been spotted on fake news sites…

Dan Greenberg, CEO of ad-software firm Sharethrough Inc, has suggested that the ad-tech firms need to do much more to prevent ads appearing on fake news sites:

“Maybe it’s true they didn’t know. Maybe it’s true they didn’t care. But it’s not fair going forward for that ad company to say they still don’t know”

The European Union is also seeking to take decisive action on the issue by demanding that social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube censor fake news (particularly those which include “hate speech”) within 24 hours of posting. EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourová told The Financial Times:

“The last weeks and months have shown that social media companies need to live up to their important role and take up their share of responsibility when it comes to phenomena like online radicalisation, illegal hate speech or fake news”

The social channels targeted by the EU have already agreed to collaborate to accelerate the removal of extremist content. Twitter, for example, have already removed over 235,000 accounts this year alone and have expanded their team reviewing reports of inappropriate text and video.

Generally speaking, I believe it’s up to the individual to decide what to believe from what they read. If the news is not from a credible source, then it deserves to be treated with at least a modicum of cynicism. And ultimately, you will believe what you want to believe. Either because it reinforces an opinion you already hold or that you are simply gullible and / or easily influenced. As the aforementioned Howard Kurtz said:

“If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems”

So what do you think? Is fake news really the scourge of social media that is being implied or is it just a fabrication in itself? Can the social networks do more to seek out and censor fake news? Should the advertising community be more diligent in the placement of ads to cut off that source of revenue? Is social media really the culprit here or is it just a case of readers not using their common sense?

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