The term “fake news” has become an epithet that US President Donald Trump attaches to any unfavourable story. But, it is also an analytical term that describes deliberate disinformation presented in the form of a conventional news report.
The problem is not completely novel. In 1925, Harper’s Magazine published an article about the dangers of “fake news.” But today two-thirds of American adults get some of their news from social media, which rest on a business model that lends itself to outside manipulation and where algorithms can easily be gamed for profit or malign purposes.
Whether amateur, criminal or governmental, many organizations are skilled at reverse-engineering how tech platforms parse information. To give Russia credit, it was one of the first governments to understand how to weaponize social media and to use America’s own companies against it.
Overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information available online, people find it difficult to know what to focus on. Attention, rather than information, becomes the scarce resource to capture. Big data and artificial intelligence allow micro-targeting of communication so that the information people receive is limited to a “filter bubble” of the like-minded.
The “free” services offered by social media are based on a profit model in which users’ information and attention are actually the products, which are sold to advertisers. Algorithms are designed to learn what keeps users engaged so that they can be served more ads and produce more revenue.
Emotions such as outrage stimulate engagement, and news that is outrageous but false has been shown to engage more viewers than accurate news. One study found that such falsehoods on Twitter were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than accurate news
Likewise, a study of demonstrations in Germany last year found that YouTube’s algorithm systematically directed users toward extremist content because that was where the “clicks” and revenue were greatest.
Fact-checking by conventional news media is often unable to keep up, and sometimes can even be counterproductive by drawing more attention to the falsehood.
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