How do you fight fake news? It’s a question I’m often asked, and as a journalist in the business for 35 years, I find it a frustrating one, because it’s often presented as if it’s a new question, and one that technology can answer. It’s not new, but yes, technology can help — a little.
Fake news is as old as news itself, but at least in the West it was most clearly defined during World War I, when “the art of Propaganda was little more than born,” in the words of Charles Montague, formerly a leader writer and theatre critic of *The Manchester Guardian* and latterly an intelligence captain in the trenches of France. Montague saw up close the early probing efforts to plant what were then called ‘camouflage stories’ in the local press in the hope of misleading the enemy; one in an obscure science journal which recklessly overstated the Allies’ ability to eavesdrop on German telephone calls in the field.
Montague, as his intelligence bosses, saw the huge potential fake news offered for deception — which, after all, was the business he was in. “If we really went the whole serpent,” he wrote later, “the first day of any new war would see a wide, opaque veil of false news drawn over the whole face of our country.” (Rankin, Nicholas: A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars)
This didn’t happen but there was enough censorship and enough force-fed propaganda of the British and American press for there to be a backlash in the wake of the war, as told in the March 2018 edition of Science Magazine (‘The science of fake news’). The norms of objectivity and balance that most of us abide by or aspire to today are those century-old ones wrought of that conflict.
So it’s worth remembering that the serpent we’re fighting isn’t some newly created hydra born out of social media: it’s age-old the servant of governments, movements, forces who understand well how minds work. But that’s only part of the story.
One of the first problems that media face is that while we stood on our plinths of noble principles those plinths were for decades — nearly a century — built on powerful commercial interests. As the authors of the Science Magazine article put it: “Local and national oligopolies created by the dominant 20th century technologies of information distribution (print and broadcast) sustained these norms. The internet has reduced many of those constraints on news dissemination.”
It has, and very effectively. Not only that, it has helped change the language, format and tone, something we’ve been slow to pick up on. An academic study in 2012 by Regina Marchi of Rutgers University, based on interviews with 61 high school students, found “that teens gravitate toward fake news, ‘snarky’ talk radio, and opinionated current events shows more than official news, and do so not because they are disinterested in news, but because these kinds of sites often offer more substantive discussions of the news and its implications.” She quotes a 2005 study that such formats are “marked by a highly skeptical, alienated attitude to established politics and its representation that is actually the reverse of disinterest”.
Take note the ‘fake news’ reference predates the Trump era by a good three years. But the style, the content, the contempt for fact and sourcing was a trend already visible a decade before Trump and others rode its coat-tails to power.
I’m not, of course, advocating fake news, but it’s pretty clear that there is a connection between news organisations failing to adapt to changing tastes of new generations leaves them vulnerable — to sources of news that are at best unreliable. As journalists we knew this was happening, of course, but we were slow to understand how great an impact it might have.
We are only just beginning to understand — or grasp afresh — the psychological aspect of this. Recent research by media scientists at MIT show that fake news is 70 more likely to be retweeted than real news. Discussions on true news also maxed out at about 1,600 people, whereas the largest network of retweets about a false story reached almost 47,000 users.
It’s not clear why. One explanation might lie in research elsewhere. A paper by Toluwase Asubiaro and Victoria Rubin of the University of Western Ontario found that fake news is better written, as it were. Comparing fake and real news stories U.S. politics from 2016-2017, they found that “fabricated political news stories by comparison to their likely legitimate counterparts, tend to have fewer words, fewer but lengthier paragraphs; they also contain more slang, swear, and affective words. The fabricated news headlines contain more words, punctuation marks, demonstratives, emotiveness and fewer verifiable facts.”
Ok, so perhaps not better written. All of these elements would not find their way past an editor. But they do give an indication of what we as journalists are facing when we’re combatting fake news. We’re not trying to fight falsehoods with facts; we’re trying to find ways to make reading, watching, listening to real news — proper, well-sourced, balanced, objective informative stories — so appealing that the allure of “snarky” radio hosts and content with “slang, swear and affective words” and “punctuation marks… and fewer verifiable facts” don’t appeal. This does not mean sinking to their level but it does mean thinking hard about what stories we choose to tell and how to tell them.
The academic research I’ve highlighted here is only the tip of the iceberg. None of it is pretty. But it helps to show that combatting fake news is not just a professional issue of journalists and media organisations just knuckling under and ensuring they get their facts right, although that obviously helps. In a future column I’ll talk to some academics and technologists who are working on some interesting, albeit partial solutions.
But for now, the point I’d like to make is this: fake news is nothing new, but we are at last beginning to take it seriously — as a threat not just to our livelihoods but to society, to our political system, even to peace. Propaganda, camouflage, deception are all powerful tools and fake news plays a role in all three. We need to take to use the word in the same breath, and with the same trepidation and respect.
First published at Knowledge Bridge, (a project of MDIF) and written by Jeremy Wagstaff, a consultant and former journalist with 35 years’ experience of Asia, spanning general, political, economic and technology issues as staff reporter and editor for Reuters, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review.