Fake News: How to Combat Misinformation in the Information Age

Is the rise of social media actually causing the spread of disinformation and misinformation? During the French election, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts disseminated false reports about candidate Emmanuel Macron. So it certainly appears that it has made the sharing process easier.

But does the technology actually lead to an increasingly misinformed public? And if so, what can we do about it?

We examined this question during our secret meet up in Germany at the Reporters Without Borders’ offices in Berlin on May 4.

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Daniel Mossbrucker discusses fake news in Germany at Reporters Without Borders.

HackPack organizes secret meet ups focused on the media industry. Every two months, we organize events in interesting locations with experts, so you can improve your career and meet fellow colleagues.

Daniel Mossbrucker from Reporters without Borders opened the event by showing us recent Pew research that suggests, no — the public is still more likely to trust friends, family and traditional media than a news article that comes through their social media feed. In fact, less than one in five Americans reports to have either wittingly or unwittingly shared fake news. Just 16 percent say they shared a false report which they later found out was true. Even less say social media is their main source of information.

If that is the case, are we creating “echo chambers” along ideological lines? Are we isolating ourselves to views that confirm our existing beliefs and blocking out other points of view?

Daniel says the data suggests otherwise. Perhaps instead people are waiting to know how to trust in a digital world, not necessarily who. In today’s world information seem to reach us unfiltered by the usual fact checks conducted by journalists.

Germany’s Federal Ministry of Justice has taken a position of forcing social media companies to delete content, yet Daniel sees little benefit in this. He argues that improving everyone’s social media literacy is the best means to combat fake news.

But how can we do that? How can we easily determine the difference between fake news, that is, news that is deliberately constructed to misinform, and news constructed through the usual checks and balances of ethical journalism?

Here are a few guidelines courtesy of the Ethical Journalism Network.

How to spot a fake news article

Use fact-checking websites. Most reputable media already double-check everything that arrives in their inboxes but now freelance journalists and small-scale media can get help from a rapidly-expanding community of online fact-checkers. Sites such as factcheck.org in the United States or the UK’s fullfact.org, for instance.

Watch out for websites with odd names. Strange domain names or sites that end in “.com.co” for instance are often fake versions of real news sources.

Check the “About Us”. Worry if there isn’t one and check the provider with Wikipedia.

Be aware of stories not reported elsewhere. A shocking, outrageous or surprising event will have another source. If it doesn’t, be suspicious.

Be wary if there is no attribution for an author or source. That’s sometimes justified, but should be explained and, if not, don’t trust it.

Check the date. One favorite trick of news fakers is to repackage old stories. They may have been accurate but when used out of time and context, they may become malicious falsehoods

— Finally, remember that there’s such a thing as satire. Not all fakery is malicious. It can even be entertaining and may come from reputable sources of journalism. Private Eye, Britain’s leading satirical news magazine, for instance, has done some great fact-based investigative journalism alongside occasionally amusing spoof editorial content, but found itself on a list of “fake-news” sites circulated when the misinformation panic set in after the Trump election.

Misinformation and the French Elections

Sam Dubberley from CrossCheck described how important it is to implement such guidelines in the face of ‘professional’ disinformation.

He referred to a notorious case that CrossCheck debunked in the lead up to the recent French election.

The niece of Marine Le Pen, shared an article via Twitter that accused then-Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron of being financed by the Saudi Arabian government. The article appeared to be published by the reputable Belgian newspaper Le Soir. If you clicked on any of the links on the site, then you were sent to Le Soir’s official site. However, the actual article was located at “lesoir.info” instead of Le Soir’s official website “lesoir.be”. Someone had fully cloned the site to masterfully mislead the public.

How can you as journalists identify such traps?

Sam shared some helpful tools for fact checking, stressing the importance of always using two reverse image searches, Google’s reverse image search and Tineye.com. Other tools are (courtesy of CrossCheck):

CrowdTangle a tool to assist in discovering and monitoring social media content relevant to elections

Spike for spotting and predicting breakout stories, social posts and viral events

Google Trends to reveal searches about candidates and campaign claims in real time

Hearken’s Engagement Management System to gather and respond to questions from the public

Meedan’s Check: a collaborative verification platform

SAM’s social media CMS, workflow tools and upcoming Social Newswire

— Le Monde’s Le Décodex: database of more than 600 news sites that have been identified and tagged as “satire,” “real,” “fake,” etc.

How else can newsrooms build trust with their audiences?

Simon Shuster,Time Magazine’s correspondent in Berlin discussed how Brexit and the election of Trump led to a period of soul searching for the media. People looked for someone to blame, from Russia to readers lost in their bubbles to social media platforms and their ‘flawed’ designs.

Time, like other organizations, he said, began looking inwardly at the make up of the newsroom, where they recognized they had created their own ‘bubbles’.

Their newsroom drew home this point by asking who had ever lived on a farm, then who had ever served in the military. Only one member present raised their hand, exemplifying how difficult it can be to fully reach a rural audience.

Simon pointed out how altering hiring policies could help reshape that bubble, and gave the example of Brett Stevens and the New York Times.

NYT had brought in Bret Stevens, generally considered a more conservative writer, to write op eds. His first piece on climate change garnered around 1800 comments, many of which put the paper to task about its hiring practices and criticizing NYT for publishing “anti-scientific” content. However, this example also demonstratedsjust how difficult it can be to restructure the hiring processes.

Where does this leave us?

Most of our speakers strongly stood for the need to better educate newsrooms on the overall skills and tools for verifying information. But journalists can’t do everything. They underlined the fact that only by passing these tools on to the public and further educating them will we have an improved and strengthened society that understands how to filter information in today’s world.

For an interesting read on how fake news is actually incentivizing improvement in journalism, check out the Ethical Journalism Network’s blog post here and Jimmy Wales’ interview about Wikitribune: http://www.niemanlab.org/2017/05/jimmy-wales-on-wikitribunes-business-model-and-why-it-might-cover-not-just-politics-but-also-dog-breeding/

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