9 October 2019
Michael Yates looks at the issues with defining and identifying fake news. Visit Download for his full article which looks at the problems caused by fake news and the difficulties involved in fixing this global phenomenon.
In this post-truth, online world, vast swathes of the global population no longer obtain their information from traditional news organisations or broadcasters. Instead, they have turned to information disseminated via non-traditional sources like social media, where it is very easy for anyone to publish information to a large number of people without much, if any, regulatory oversight, leading to an explosion of "fake news" or disinformation. But how do you decide when news is fake?
The first problem comes with the definition itself. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee's (DCMS) report on "Disinformation and 'fake news'" rejected the use of the term "fake news" altogether, using "disinformation" instead. In its response to the DCMS's interim report on fake news, the UK government defined "disinformation" as "the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purpose of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain". The government's Online Harms White Paper says disinformation is "information which is created or disseminated with the deliberate intent to mislead; this could be to cause harm, or for personal, political or financial gain". The Cambridge dictionary says it is "false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke". Others say it can include parody, satire or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media. Another view is that it consists of stories which confirm readers' own beliefs or biases according to characteristics (so not that different to reading the same newspaper every day).
Where is the line? Does fake news include print and broadcast media or not? If not, why is there a difference between using those mediums to influence public opinion with false stories and using social media? Does it include information published by governments and would that be subject to any regulation?
The Electoral Commission has called for a change in the law to make online political adverts show clearly who paid for them. It wants online adverts to carry the same information as printed election material, which has to say who has produced it. Facebook has recently started an online archive of political adverts on its site, with information about who is behind them and how they are targeted. However, as a general point, it is considered that much of the fake news used to influence to 2016 Presidential elections was via unpaid posts, not paid adverts, which were voluntarily shared by other users; regulation or legislation targeting paid advertising would not have affected these posts at all.
Between October 2017 and September 2018, Facebook says it shut down 2.8 billion fake accounts. The company says people trying to abuse its systems often set up a computer which creates a new account every 10 seconds and it is engaged in a "constant war" to remove them. We have been told that Russia used thousands of false US identities supported by fake documents and imposter social media profiles to disseminate fake news or blend into real social media activities and influence online public discourse. How should social media companies identify such fake accounts, given they can be indistinguishable from legitimate US users' profiles? If there is no way to verify authenticity, it becomes very difficult to prevent others sharing fake news more widely, potentially leading to republication by high profile users which could cause such news to permeate the mainstream media.
The spread of fake news using such methods is also difficult to prevent from a data protection point of view because users are not always targeted by advertisers using their personal data to micro target them, but are engaging one to one on a closed platform with fake social media profiles.
Further, much of this fake news (paid or unpaid) does not reference an election or voting or endorse a specific candidate, but focuses on subjects such as race, ethnicity and immigration, religion and law enforcement to provoke emotional responses. So how can they be identified as relating to an election or to politics, and be defined as "political"? Individuals expressing views on matters of public interest quite obviously fall within the concept of freedom of expression under the First Amendment in the USA, for example. It would be very hard to legislate against 'promoting division'. If no individual is identified in either a paid or unpaid post, then no legal cause of action could arise upon which to base any claim.
These are just some of the challenges to tackling fake news. For more on fake news and other issues for platforms, visit our tech and media microsite, Download.