What is ‘Fake News’ and why is it making a comeback?

Fake News, when boiled down, is a form of propaganda intended to spread misinformation. While misinformation tactics have been around for milleniums, Fake News is the far more dangerous and sinister modern brethren of such strategies. Its birth was made possible by a number of factors:

  • The rapid success of the Internet, and the wide audience making it an increasingly large part of their lives.
  • The birth of the 24-hour news cycle.
  • The birth of ‘clickbait’ sensationalism.
  • The rise of post-truth politics.

All of these factors have created the perfect platform and mechanic for malicious entities to reach a huge audience with relatively little effort, spreading whatever misinformation they wish faster than the plague. Nothing is proving to be safe from the clawing hands of Fake News. After all, when one could sway an election in their favour, discredit an enemy within hours, or taint the reputation of a competitor, why not?

Just how dangerous is it?

Fake News is incredibly dangerous. Its short term effects, while devastating to its victims, are the very least of the issues caused by it. Its increased use can damage a very sacred pillar of media: trust. Public trust in media is incredibly important, but Fake News threatens to damage it for generations to come. A public distrusting of the media will not take further care to find the truth, but rather cherry-pick what they want to be true and ignore everything else under the assumption that it is false. This is an engine that fuels itself, as increased distrust leads to further division between people and even further distrust.

We’ve also only seen the tip of the iceberg. Advancements in AI are promising for Fake News, as an AI could produce Fake News hundreds of times faster than humans possibly could. Other technologies, such as the very recent ‘deepfake’ example, allow a user to produce an increasingly realistic faked video using only a couple of hundred images of the intended target. Despite it being a new technology, it is already subtle and difficult to identify. This can be used to target anyone, allowing the user to make them say or do almost anything.

While the future looks bleak, and Fake News looks like it’s not going anywhere, there is still hope. One potential counter to its dangers is mass education. Mass education on the matter produces a generation aware of how to avoid being influenced by Fake News. This would be a killing blow, as its effectiveness is reduced dramatically. Another counter may lie in AI. Besides producing Fake News, an AI may also conceivably be used to identify and flag suspected Fake News. This, along with human oversight from an international consortium of journalists with the aim of categorizing and managing Fake News, could lead to public trust being restored in the media. As long as there is a simple and trustworthy method to identify Fake News, and people are educated in the use of it, Fake News stands no chance.

What is the difference between sensationalising news and Fake News

It is not always easy to tell if news is true. Sensationalised news means that while the story stems from the truth, details have most likely been greatly exaggerated. Does this mean sensationalised news is Fake News? By definition, Fake News is news that is false, with the intention of spreading misinformation. Sensationalised news is not entirely truthful either. While it is news that branches off into the direction of lies, it is not intended to misinform; rather, it is intended to generate revenue through the use of advertisements. As readers we need to be able to identify what news is truthful, clickbait, and what news is Fake News.

Our In-House Experiments

At SSV, the BBC News Project team released two false pieces of information within the school with the assistance of several staff members. This was done to demonstrate that people are likely to believe any information they perceive to be coming from a trusted source, in this case the school – in a wider sense the media, without taking the time to fact-check it themselves. As Fake News is increasingly becoming a threat, we felt compelled to raise awareness and teach our peers about its dangers. The idea was originally brought up when the BBC News Project team was discussing how to ideally present our flagship article about Fake News. We decided to include a practical experiment performed on our own school, to test out whether our hypothesis held when tested against our peers. The notion was further examined by assisting staff members, and later by the Headteacher who gave us guidelines for what we were permitted to do.

We began our experiment by presenting a fake speaker in our TEDx to various students and teachers, whom we then asked to state their impressions from the speaker. The people that we spoke to were able to recall most of the speeches, however, they could not strongly remember Sara’s speech (Fake character) yet did not deny her existence. Our goal was to receive such a response, and it deems our initial experiment was successful as they did not pretend to remember her, but instead accepted that it was a real speaker, having not pointed out the error. Although few entirely believed the information, they assumed it to be fact. This may be because they believed it came from a seemingly trustworthy source.

The next part of the experiment was advertising an event in school called: “Under Canvas for Keats”. With the help of the entire English and Drama Faculty, we promoted across the entire school a one-day camping event with the English and Drama teachers where one could recite poems around a camp-fire in our school Eco-garden.

To make sure the news spread well, all our English teachers promoted the event to their pupils, and multiple posters explaining the event were hung in high-traffic areas with a sign-up sheet in the atrium of our school.

Over the period of a week, there were many who showed interest in the event, and some even signing up without suspicion of it being fake. One student, commented on the event by saying this: “I am quite interested in the poetry-camping-night event; however, I lack essential information … If I could just find out the venue, date, price, requirements and “signup-by” date … I may not be able to go which would be a terrible shame!”.

At the end of the week, when many accepted the idea that the event was real, in red-permanent marker, we crossed out every sheet and scrawled in capital letters: “FAKE NEWS”.

The general reaction was shock and surprise, as many may not have encountered and been directly affected by Fake News. Our prediction was proven to be accurate, as many in the face of Fake News recognise it as reality.

The purpose of these experiments was to inform and make our peers aware of the presence and influence of Fake News in the world. It was completed to see how Fake News affects our peers and we hope that our peers are now in a better position to decipher facts from fiction, giving them a better understanding of the world around them.

Fake News can manipulate opinions and twist reality. We are currently in an era where Fake News is a large threat to our democracy and the understanding of reality in the world around us. We must combat this together: don’t believe everything you read and keep asking questions.