The Russians are at it again. First it was the United States election, a so-called victim of misinformation spread by a network of Russian supported websites that propagated false claims and libel in an attempt to influence a part of the population to vote for Donald Trump. Now, as the French electors prepare to vote in the first round of their presidential elections this weekend, misinformation is spreading here too.
The biggest conduit of fake news is Facebook. The platform, slowly reacting to the fact that it’s actually pretty influential, has taken a break from copying all of Snapchat’s features to resolve various societal issues. How do they prevent murders from being broadcast with Facebook Live? And the nearly impossible question: how do they stop the spread of fake news? If you haven’t seen it over the past week, Facebook has been posting warnings at the top of their users’ feeds explaining how to spot fake news. The people who are reading those warnings are not part of the problem.
First let’s understand how fake news works.
- Somoeone creates a website in a matter or minutes that looks like it’s a real news source. They may add the weather and invent a newspaper-sounding title like The Denver Express.
- That person then writes whatever they want in that website and pushes it to social networks.
- People, scrolling through their feeds, see the article, are intrigued, and click through. Outraged at what they see, they share.
- Fake news spreads like wildfire.
Quick, grab your xanax, because this is about to get depressing.
There is probably nothing we can do about it.
Anyone can use a WordPress template, create a website and register a domain name in a matter of minutes. The only thing that takes a little bit of time – usually a few hours or less than a day max – is directing the URL to the server.
Anyone can take a webpage or a bit of content and share it to social networks instantly.
Facebook tries, and tries pretty hard, to censure things that are illegal, and even things that are unwholesome, like nudity, are kept off of the platform. But most of those things are image-based, or can be identified through text filters. Fake news cannot be filtered because since its entirely made up, there is no way to anticipate it and create filters to block that sort of content.
“Yeah, but there are laws right?”
Sure, laws exist, but the laws that govern the internet are essentially toothless legalese that in theory exist to support other national laws like libel and traffic of illegal content or products. But the international nature of the internet makes enforcing any of these laws nearly impossible except when it comes to large corporations who are registered entities who can be readily identified and punished.
For a Fake news man, there is essentially no chance of being caught, no repercussion for their actions, only reward. There are the WHOIS databases, that are supposed to list physical people for each domain name registered on the web. But those can be easily faked since there is no verification behind it. Even if they could be reliably tracked, internet law enforcement task forces spend their time trying to catch traffickers of child pornography and identity thiefs. They have no time for fake news.
“Wait, there must be something to stop it!”
Even if we could make every website owner accountable, treating them as enemies of the state and sending them to jail for life for treason, or create filters that only allowed information from reputable sources to be shared on social networks, who would do this job? And who would pay for it? Could it be called a public good and paid for by taxes? How would people – like me – gain approval to be allowed to post? Would we basically be living in China? Which websites do you think Trump would “authorize?” The slope is lubed up and ready for slipping.
No, let’s be honest, that’s impossible. Technology is decentralized. Any program can be hacked. Any security measure can be worked around. It makes no sense to try and block content because that just gives extra legitimacy to any hacker who manages to get content through the system. “Well, if Facebook allowed it, it must be true!”
The real problem: People
God damn people, every time! The problem is that people are scrolling through their feeds, mindlessly passing over videos of flamingos who look like they need to pee and bullshit from the LAD Bible. In order for something to catch their attention, they need to be pre-disposed to it somehow. This is why animal content is so powerful, everyone is pre-disposed to find kittens cute.
The pre-disposition is different for each individual. So when someone who is slightly conservative sees a headline like “Hillary Clinton investigated for a serious crime” their reaction is to stop and say “I knew she was crooked!” Then, one of two things happens: either the person clicks to read the article, where the classic line “sources say” confirms their hunch that the news is somehow real; or, even worse, that person doesn’t read the article but just assumes that it supports their point of view and shares it without ever checking. It’s called the echo chamber. People only choose to hear or read what they want to anyway.
Either way, the people that fake news is targeting are not trying to get in touch with the editors and demanding to know the research and investigative methods used to gain this information. Fuck, they aren’t even clicking the fake links to see that there is probably no other content on that website other than that fake article!
They find something that makes their point for them and they share it, thus propogating fiction in an attempt to sway people to their side. This is not true only for the dumb asses out there that we can say are “duped.” This is true for everyone. We all share things that support our own beliefs and opinions. We seldom come across something that changes what we think. We pursuade without being pursuaded.
Fortunately there are people who are take the time to verify the things they hear by checking if it’s being reported across multiple sources that have a history of journalism with editorial protocols and a reputation on the line. Unfortunately, the spread of alternative news websites has eroded the financial foundation of the pillars of investigative journalism like The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
It’s more important than ever to start paying for a digital subscription to legitimate publications so that at least we have actors who carry responsibility on their shoulders. Even when we can get everything for free, our only hope against the coming tsunami of misinformation is to protect the few remaining organizations whose dedication to proper journalism can reassure us of the validity of their claims.