How to Fight Fake News?

,,Serbian Tourist Killed Shark in Sharm El Sheikh’’.

This headline from 2010 brought fame to now widely popular portal, famous for its satirical news. The news is untrue and funny of course, but even such it created a true mayhem, it was even distributed by some foreign portals.

If it is so with satirical news, imagine the ones where it is not that easy to distinguish the fine line between truth and lie.

What was the first time the world learned about fake news?

In 2016, the world was shocked by Donald Trump's victory at the US presidential elections.

The elections were blemished by numerous controversies, the most famous being the one with fake news and Russian hacker accounts on Facebook whereby they exerted direct influence upon public opinion and voter's views.

Tramp i lažne vesti

It was then that the term "fake news" was associated with all the news deliberately distorting reality in order to implement some political, promotional or commercial agenda.

What might be interesting for people in this region is that the major hub of fake news at the time of pre-election campaign was situated in our southern neighbour, Macedonia, without the Northern prefix at the time being.

A large number of websites was registered in Veles (Macedonia) fabricating fake news mostly directed against Hillary Clinton, in favour of Donald Trump.

Young people, driven by desire to profit from Facebook ads, have smelled the opportunity to build traffic by bombastic headlines and keywords that included presidential candidates, highly searched at the time being.

Once he was inaugurated, Trump often used the term fake news to label all news and headlines that he found provoking. He even refuted some serious claims about climate changes calling them fake news and Russian-Chinese propaganda.

I suppose that's why he abstained from signing the Paris Agreement. It is a clear abuse of fake news and it opens a new post-truth era where the facts and arguments are spun and devalued before the flood of lies and half-truths that sound good and flirt with the beliefs and expectations of the audience. But that is a topic for a separate article

Why do we believe fake news?

In order to understand the background of fake news, we have to sneak into human psychology. Despite being the most intelligent beings on the planet (that's what we are convinced), when making conclusions and decisions, we often subconsciously make logical fallacies and errors in reasoning.

Cognitive bias is on of such fallacies.

In this specific instance, naively accept the news we are served belongs to the category of confirmation bias. It is an innate human tendency to find arguments to support their pre-conceived attitude, prejudice, dogma,

Owing to natural resistance to contradictory information and inner conflict it creates, our brain is selectively exposed to such information that reinforce already established positions.

Besides being energy efficient, this mechanism helps us to avoid inner and interpersonal conflicts and to maintain consistency in our behaviour, which is one of the key drivers of our actions.

What is particularly interesting, though, is that contrary to logic, the cognitive bias is increased in direct proportion to the amount of information. Instead of protecting us from faulty reasoning, excessive information actually pushes us deeper into our own prejudice.

We expose ourselves selectively only to such information that our brain validates as truthful, in accordance with the aforementioned mechanism.

The cognitive bias trap works for absolutely everyone, irrespective of one's literacy level, education, social or financial status. It is due to emotional component that affects our reasoning, which no one is immune to.

It can be illustrated by an example from the US history and a spectacular failure to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

J. F. Kennedy and his administration were convinced that the invasion would succeed, even though the facts and ground reports claimed otherwise. Instead of questioning their intents, they decided to trust their "hunch" and the selective information provided by the intelligence agencies.

JFK with his associates

Modern digital media are the perfect tool for distribution of information which makes people more than ever exposed to cognitive bias traps.

Owing to massive data and digital trails we leave behind us, the news creators have the perfect position to bombard us with the information that suit our hearts. The brain is unfortunately not much involved here.

Therefore, we are ready to recklessly believe in disinformation, half-truths and fake news.  

How to recognize fake news?

There are different types of fake news and different goals.

Some aim at discrediting individuals, some at specific groups or communities, and some the entire society or countries.

Yet, there are several things typical for fake news:

  • they are characterized by sensationalism
  • they are announced on the portals well-known for their tabloid-wise reporting
  • they spread very fast on social networks
  • they provoke strong emotions by their bombastic headlines
  • they flirt with inherent fears and prejudice
  • neretko se oslanjaju na teorije zavere
  • their effects are extremely strong, they create massive attention and strong emotions
  • they polarize public opinion
  • they use suggestive graphic and language

For a news to be qualified as fake, it has to be the news in the first place.

Nowadays, the very notion of news has seen a transformation.

It used to be a strictly defined process - news were created by journalist who used research to find the information which they subsequently coloured with their own critical view, subject to the approval of the editorial board or a news agency.

They were distributed through media - in the beginning only print, then radio and TV. The multitude of media channels was now joined by the Internet with its media portals and social networks.

So, the distribution of news became faster, more efficient and easier.

We follow the news on the other side of the Earth in near real-time and we are agitated if our famous portal has not yet announced latest updates on Thailand boys trapped in a cave, or a bombing attack in Russia, or Djokovic current result in set 2 of a Grand Slam match (you know the section "from minute to minute").

Driven by the desire to cater to their readers' curiosity and impatience, media services often distribute unverified and false information.

I guess they consider that it is better to publish some info, even incorrect one, that to lag behind the competition.

It is one of the most benign type of fake news, with no premeditation, arising from the need to be up-to-date at any cost.

There is yet another type of fake news, those deliberately created as manipulative content to produce certain effects, polarize public opinion, divert emotions to desired direction or influence the outcome of a process.

Just recall the media campaign directed against Sadam Housssein and the allegations about the production of chemical weapons which paved the way for bloody military intervention.

Eventually, even the English confessed that they had dealt with unverified information and they expressed their deep regrets and condolences.

hemijsko oružje

And now what?

The harm is done, the country devastated, domino effect initiated in the Northern Africa and the Middle East, the door swung wide open for militant Islamic extremists to ravish little healthy tissue remained in this unstable region stirring a huge wave of migrations to the Western Europe.

The effect of such news is appalling and far-reaching, the state order is demolished, wars, exoduses and mass bloodshed launched.

posledice lažnih vesti
a boy in a war-torn Syria

Are bots people or robots?

What is particularly interesting now is the merger of artificial intelligence and media.

It is not a common knowledge that today you have bots capable of processing enormous amount of data and sorting it by various criteria, even to automatically leave generic comments below the news.

Bots in Serbia are synonymous with certain political parties that leave comments on news and announcements on social networks in order to exert impact on readers' views.

These people are for real, of course, but bots are actually scripts, artificially developed, which autonomously process the data.

There are also chat bots, who function under the AI principles and successfully mimic the real human audio and visual communication. These are the little windows that pop up when you visit a website "how can I help you?"

They can respond to limited number of questions, retrieving the answers from the knowledge base. For more complex questions, they need human assistance, of course. But they are making a progress on a daily basis and we may soon have fully functional customer support run by bots.

a chatbot

A special software (GPT2) has been developed, which is capable of generating fully meaningful texts on specific topics related to daily politics, sport, economy.

The power of this software is testified by the fact that a non-profit research company OpenAI, backed by Elon Musk, decided not to put GPT2 in commercial use fearing it could be abused!

What will happen in a few years time, will bots wind down journalism as a profession, which is already in the phase of clinical death.

A hint that it might happen is coming from China, that is taking huge steps towards AI application.

The state news agency, Xinhua, has made a virtual TV anchor, able to read news. It is made after the image of a flesh and blood colleague who has been"cloned for that purpose"“.

veštački voditelj
a virtual anchor

Although the difference between the real and artificial anchor is clearly visible, this is an amazingly good first attempt, which also announces the impeding disaster of yet another wonderful profession.

Fake news and social networks

Then we have inevitable social networks, where fake news are disorderly spread, like a forest fire. Thus they become what is now called viral content.

The more sensational the news is, the faster its distribution. No matter if it is true or not. It is presented as the fact and people don't raise any doubts.

Plus, such news are supplied to audience according to their recognized inclinations, i.e. based on their previous behaviour on social networks.

In other words, they are fed with such information they are already wired to swallow, as it is in line with their standpoints, interests, likes, pages they follows (see above the confirmation bias).

After all, is there anyone who knows us better than Facebook?

In addition, just like with the news on portals, the emotional reaction to the announced information on social networks is to large extent subject to the comments published below the article.

There are always plenty of inspired typists - activists, who are ready to start a revolution sitting by their screens.

Information overload and the fight for attention

Nowadays we are flooded with various information. Our brain is no longer capable of processing it, let alone store it.

It is a shame there is no device for measuring data overweight, like the ones at the airports, to charge every single excessive byte of sensory inputs. We would all get rich pretty soon.

In such circumstances, the fight for people's attention has become the absolute priority.

In that fight, tools are indiscriminately used, the goal is what matters.

As we are scanning the headlines and skim the text, there is just a tiny bit of second available for our perception to make a pause and focus on specific text.

That's why headlines are so bombastic, full of emotion-filled words, inarticulate thoughts and rhetoric questions that serve only as baits. That's where the English term clickbait originated from.

Extensively tried formulas are used, our subconscious mechanisms, basic instincts and primordial fears are appealed to.

Eros and Tanatos and basic instincts

Eros and Tanatos are a time-tested combination.

Endless exploit of the crime column and sexual affairs of celebrities and the anonymous (see the post on reality shows) and the success is guaranteed.

Spice it with fear and the effect is full blown (The arctic winter is coming / Deadly small pox / The world is on the verge of nuclear war / Putin holds the doomsday trigger).

Take a look at how Voja Žanetić visually depicted DIY model of a typical tabloid:

uradi sam tabloid
a tabloid blueprint

Everything is created so as to inhibit neurocortex, a part of the brain in charge of reasoning and making decisions and conclusions.

Instead, the target is amigdala which is in charge of emotions and fight-or-flight type of response.

Stress hormones are activated, the longer exposure to which leads to desolation and depression.

How to handle fake news?

Now that we have acknowledged the state of affairs, which is anything but good, what would be the solution? How to defend oneself against fake news?

First and foremost, we should avoid reading daily political affairs and shallow, trivial content, to largest possible extent.

And we should re-examine what we have read, we should put reasonable questions and leave room for doubt.

A website has been recently launched in Serbia serving as a fact-checker, flagging the news that have been proved as fake. And you can report a news that you are positively aware of being fake.

You wouldn't like to know how predictable your behaviour is and how easy it is to read your affinities and interests.

A few clicks would suffice.

Specially developed algorithms track your online behaviour and social network activities, store such data and sell it further and distribute it to internet services and marketing agencies that serve you with exactly what you want, or you believe you want.

Do not read the most visited portals and high-circulation daily newspapers..

If you really like to be informed, or the nature of your job is such that you need to be up-to-date, it is better to buy a weekly magazine once a week (printed or electronic edition).

The journalists that write those articles at least have more time to check the information, to arrange them, make additional proof-reading and editing, to have them verified by the editor and only then to publish it.

I am not saying they are error-proof, but at least the possibility for disseminating nonsense is much more reduced.

The best option is to read books on the topics of your interests. 

Books contain the largest part of an iceberg, under the surface.

If you are not aware of it, every time you will be blindsided by the magnetic attraction of the glaring its white peak which will break the stern of your common sense.

porodica na plaži

And for Christ sake, live your own lives and devote some time for yourself and your families.

Do not bother about the destiny of Thai boys trapped in a cave, or tsunami victims in Indonesia or the collapse of bridge in Italy if you are not able to help them physically or financially.

No one disputes that these are horrible human tragedies, but you surely have much more serious problems than that, don't waste your emotions.

In a sudden rush of empathy and altruism, just think if you can devote your time, energy or money for helping truly close persons in your immediate vicinity.