Our role in fake news

It is up to us as individuals to take responsibility, writes Associate Professor Val Hooper, Head of Victoria University of Wellington's School of Marketing and International Business and a panellist in its 'Open knowledge versus fake news' event.

The term ’fake news’ sprang to prominence in January 2017 when US President Donald Trump embarked on his frequent use of the term to label media reports that did not accord with his perspective or views. According to one dictionary definition, it is deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast media or online social media which are compiled with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person and/or gain financially or politically. Fake news thus has a malicious intention.

Fake news has been around for thousands of years. More recent examples include the ‘lügenpresse’ (lying press) in Germany and Lord Haw-haw’s pro-Nazi propaganda in World War II. What, then, has led to the proliferation and apparent success of fake news within the past few years?

One could argue that a confluence of suitably conducive conditions has been the main cause. These conditions are: the increase in the power of the Internet and, in particular, the World Wide Web; the development of online social media; and the desire and movements of people around the world to demand greater transparency and accountability from their governments. In addition, the financial benefits stemming from different fake news-based business models, such as the fake news production companies in Macedonia and fake news detection companies, have been a strong attraction.

Communication theory indicates that the communication process consists of a number of core elements: the message, which is the focal element; the source; the sender, which/who may be the same as the source; the medium; the receiver; and background noise.

It is particularly the medium and the receiver which deserve special note.

The medium can be one of the traditional media or dissemination online. When Tim Berners-Lee made the source code of the World Wide Web available to the world for free in 1991, his ideal was that, by having a common hypertext-linked system, as much information as possible would be available to as many people as possible throughout the world. So successful did the World Wide Web become that within a decade people were complaining of information overload and working on ways to deal with their burgeoning supplies of information. Ironically, back in 1991, when search engines were in their infancy, few imagined what effect they would have on the dissemination of information— the analysis of user preferences, the targeted messaging and advertising, and the financial rewards of click-bait. The complaint was soon to become not too much information but how to determine which information was true and which not.

Another medium influential in the spread of fake news is social media. Social media originally served the purpose of establishing a semi-public profile within a bounded system; identifying those with whom one wanted to share a connection; and viewing and traversing their list of connections and those made by others within the system. Initially, people used social media to build new relationships and maintain established relationships. Very soon, however, companies were using social media for related purposes, as were governments and various causes. Yet other, possibly more malicious, activities developed. These included cyborgs—bots that are artificial means of manipulating the information flows to the receivers. Various business models developed around the generation and dissemination of fake news via social media. What is important to note is that when establishing a public profile, be it from an individual point of view or that of a brand, organisation, cause or government, it will mostly be a case of putting our best foot forward—even if it entails some enhancement, filtering or exaggeration to a greater or lesser extent.

Ultimately, the receiver is the target of fake news. In their engagement with the medium and the message, they will be influenced by their attitudes towards both, and towards the sender, and these attitudes will embrace their biases, predispositions and trust. The receiver will also be influenced by their relevant reference groups, as well as bots/cyborgs; the extent of their medium engagement in terms of frequency, heuristics and triangulation; and their motivation. The last is particularly important. We might simply be seeking factual information but very often we are seeking entertainment and emotional experience. Our predilection for the spicy, horrific and sensational is well documented. In many instances, we will willingly suspend our disbelief and go along with a story or report for the entertainment value. The danger is that some people do not have any disbelief to suspend or will selectively consume that type of information, especially if it accords with their biases and predispositions—the convenient truth.

So what is to be done about fake news? The concern is it exists side by side with ‘legitimate’ news on the Internet and its regulation varies hugely between countries. Attempts by governments and organisations like the World Economic Forum to make search engines and social media responsible for policing and halting the dissemination of fake news have had little effect. Berners-Lee is hoping his new platform, Solid, will provide a safer environment in which to share ‘legitimate’ information.

However, it is individuals who decide which information to believe or not. While they might consume a variety of information, some of it indeed fake, what they end up believing is determined by what they trust—in terms of sender, medium and content. That is why it’s important for brands, causes, political parties and governments to establish and nurture high levels of trust in consumers’ and the public’s minds.

From a consumer’s perspective, one of the better guidelines to detecting fake news is provided by the Federation of Library Associations:

  • Consider the source
  • Read beyond
  • Check the author
  • Are there supporting sources?
  • Check the date
  • Is it a joke?
  • Check your biases
  • Ask the experts.

Ultimately, though, as Professor Timothy Snyder from Yale University commented: “You can’t use protocol or an algorithm, you need human beings who take responsibility for things.”

Associate Professor Val Hooper and other experts will be discussing ‘Open knowledge vs fake news’ in a free public event at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington on Tuesday 6 November as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Capital City Universities Initiative.