The Truth About Fake News And How to Combat It

Adeline Teoh Writer

“Fake News” has been a frequently used term of late – so much so that it even became voted the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2016. How did the proliferation of “fake news” take place, and how can the everyday person call this out? Here’s how.

Why does fake news exist? While there’s often a political agenda – such as lobby groups trying to sway public opinion – one of the main reasons is because clicks is a valuable commodity.

“The potential profit to be made from online advertising is what is driving the fake news industry,” explained David Hickey, director of media consultancy Meltwater ANZ. “We have seen journalistic integrity and research take a back seat in the pursuit of clickbait.”

Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, a research scientist at the Indiana University Network Science Institute agrees. “Social media platforms are content platforms and they make money by allowing people to produce content and get revenue out of it. Once you’re successful at spreading news, you get a reward.”

Ciampaglia is a project team member of Hoaxy, an online tool that shows the spread of information and misinformation across social media. It was initially created as a data collection and visualisation tool for scientists, and attracted wide attention during the 2016 US election campaign.

Fake news ran rampant during the 2016 US presidential election. (Credit: Getty)
Fake news ran rampant during the 2016 US presidential election. (Credit: Getty)

The tool comes at a time where the need for Internet users to question and verify their news sources is more urgent than ever before.

In an experiment conducted by Stanford University’s History Education Group, 91 per cent of high school students and 93 per cent of college students failed to identify that a lobby group was behind a website posing as a hub of information on minimum wage.

The most troubling part was that a quick search would’ve led them to numerous sources, including a Salon article, that exposed the dubious origins of the website. This meant that when students landed on the page, they didn’t try to verify the information through other sources.

The problem is further compounded by the “halo effect” of word-of-mouth when the news is consumed via social media.

“Social media has become somewhat of an echo chamber in which the content, pages and even people that we engage with in the online space increasingly serve to confirm our own personal biases,” said David Hickey, director of media consultancy Meltwater ANZ. “The socialisation of news is a hallmark of the digital age.”

Currently, around 35 percent of Australians use social media platforms to obtain information on news and current affairs, according to a 2016 social media report by marketing firm Sensis.

The halo effect of word-of-mouth has contributed to the spread of fake news. (Credit: Getty)
The halo effect of word-of-mouth has contributed to the spread of fake news. (Credit: Getty)

Unsurprisingly, this has made social media a very confusing place for place for someone to understand what’s happening in the news, and in the world around them.

“There are opinions of people that one side can interpret as accurate information even if it’s not, and that can make people more entrenched,” Ciampaglia added. “There’s a low level of trust in the press and [with social media use] all this has created the conditions for a perfect storm.”

Hickey believes it’s up to journalists to stamp out misinformation using the very social media platforms. However, the issue isn’t just about hard facts, but soft biases – using our own beliefs as a benchmark to qualify information – and that’s a problem technology won’t be able to fix in a hurry.

TED-Ed has issued a checklist of questions we should ask to figure out whether an article is real or fake.

  1. Who wrote it? Journalists have bylines and bios you can check.
  2. What claims does it make? Real news has verifiable research and multiple primary sources.
  3. When was it published? Breaking news may be speculative.
  4. Where was it published? A trustworthy media outlet or a propaganda website?
  5. How does it make you feel? Fake news is designed to provoke a response.

As we get smarter about the information we consume, hopefully we can arrive at a more objective and accurate understanding of the world around us too.

Hero Image : Getty.

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