What’s Behind the Issue of Fake News?


Fake news has been making waves in the media. Like many, I get my news from social media – articles shared by friends, Youtube videos about current events or alleged quotes from public figures often appear credible. A variety of different voices and perspectives allow me to build my own opinion, independently of the mainstream messages from the media. But they are also a hard to sort chaos of real information, opinions, art, satire and gibberish. Established news sources have a brand to defend, which creates a strong incentive to assure the reliability of their stories. Still, we are not spared from false news, even when reading print.

More than 30 years ago, the German newspaper “Der Stern” announced it would publish diary entries from Adolf Hitler. Closer inspection revealed them as forgeries, the reputation of the newspaper was severely damaged and sales went down. Most independent news websites and blogs that lack a reputation of their own have no such economic incentive. For them, it would be cheaper, easier and often more profitable to invent the events they report on. Fake news companies make it their standard of operation to invent engaging stories and change their name and website as soon as they have been identified as fake. Without reputation, shedding a name is not much of a sacrifice and without the constraint to remain close to the truth, an article can be optimized to generate profit through the placement of advertisement. Despite the temptation, many bloggers and freelance writers produce high-quality content, contributing their unique perspective.

The easiest way to judge the reliability of a text is to look at spelling and style. This can tell us at least whether an author was willing and able to make an effort to get those right. I for one would not have been able to get the spelling right with out the help of my colleagues, who also contributed a great deal to the readability and clearness of this blog post and thus to the reliability of the information, that will reach you. Furthermore, one can analyze an article’s sources. The Wikipedia community relies heavily on citations, to ensure the reliability of Wikipedia articles and it’s “citation needed” tag turned into a widely used meme. The chrome extension B.S. Detector (github.com/selfagency/bs-detector) checks articles against a list of known biased satirical or fraudulent sources. This is provided by OpenSources (www.opensources.com) a web service specializing in such classifications. Interesting for us at PlagScan: Many articles can be detected as fake by searching for cases of plagiarism because of the same economic forces that speak against actual reporting – it is cheaper to copy parts of other articles and combine them into a new piece.

But even in mainstream media, we find deviations from the truth. When news are reported on television, the pictures shown often have no direct connection to the reported event. Stock pictures are used to underly and illustrate the story. A cynical example of this: The film sequences of celebrating Arab children shown in television reports on the 9/11 attacks. The lines between a fake and making a real story more accessible to the viewer are blurry. One should not expect the reporters to understand every topic they write about. Optimally, they report the facts to the best of their abilities, including time and knowledge constrains. Just listing the facts without engaging the reader’s emotions by forging the reported events into an exciting story, could be considered its own kind of lie – the truth may not reach us.

If we ask ourselves: “Is what I read here the absolute truth?”, the answer will most likely be “no.” A better question would be “how does this article change my views and opinions” and “is the article in relation to those changes a reliable source that warrants those changes?”

While newspapers do not depict the whole truth, they tend to reach, at least for main stream topics a precision, that is sufficient for the casually interested reader. For more specialized topics one should view a newspaper article more as a teaser. Blogs, especially those of experts, can really shine, where readers want to put in the work to consider details from a range of different sources. In the end, all information you get is first and foremost a new starting point to ask more questions about the world.

Happy digging and learning – I wish you the best of luck.

PhilippT. Wettmann

Sources and further Reading:

http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-12/fake-news-nachrichten-journalismus

http://www.stern.de/panorama/stern-crime/30-jahre-hitler-tagebuecher-henri-nannen-und-der-gau-3210340.html

http://www.opensources.co/ https://github.com/selfagency/bs-detector

https://www.kaggle.com/mrisdal/fake-news

Four tricky ways that fake news can fool you

http://hoaxmap.org/

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html?_r=0

https://media.ccc.de/v/33c3-8288-bonsai_kitten_waren_mir_lieber_-_rechte_falschmeldungen_in_sozialen_netzwerken

https://www.amazon.com/Ignorance-Drives-Science-Stuart-Firestein/dp/0199828075

http://blog.plagscan.com/why-is-plagiarism-tempting-to-journalists/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Citation_needed

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