Updated: Oct 5, 2018
In 1475, a young boy named Simonino went missing in Trent, Italy. In the wake of this tragedy a particular Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, saw an opportunity to push a vile agenda. In his sermons he began spreading a rumor that the boy had been murdered by Jews who drained his blood and drank it in celebration of passover. Before long the rumor had spread to
the Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderbach, who believed it so adamantly that he had the entire Jewish population of the town arrested and tortured. Not only were fifteen of them eventually burned at the stake, but this atrocity inspired nearby communities to commit similar anti-semitic acts. Even today some anti-semitic groups claim that Bernardino da Feltre’s story is true as a means to justify their views. The idea that one fake story could have such far-reaching and long-lasting effects is terrifying, especially in the context of today’s fake news problem, which could be described as a pandemic.
In order to find a cure for this pandemic, we must first understand it better. Where do these stories come from? Who do they target? How do they attract traffic? Craig Silverman has addressed these issues in an interview with NPR. He has found that there is a large cluster of about 140 fake news sites based in the town of Veles, Macedonia. After contacting the owners of these sites, he has found that many of them are very young, teens and twenties mostly, who are just exploiting controversy to make a buck in an economically challenged area. They are not politically motivated or even well-informed. Stories posted on these sites during the election tended to be pro-Trump and anti-Clinton for no reason other than that they found those stories attract the most views. The owners of these sites are using Facebook as a platform to gain an audience and direct traffic to their sites. They realized that if you tell someone exactly what they want to hear, they will not bother to question it. So by joining various pro-Trump or anti-Clinton groups, they are able to share links to their site with multitudes of receptive people. This represents the very heart of the problem. How can you stop lies that people want to hear?
Facebook is responding to this newfound threat by implementing new ways to flag content to send it to third party fact checkers. Content that has been flagged as potentially fake will not be featured as highly as unflagged content would and content deemed to be fake will be labeled as “disputed” wherever it appears alongside a link with an explanation. Furthermore, in effort to reduce traffic and de-incentivise these sites, these stories disputed as fake will also be ineligible to become featured ads on the site. To truly make fake news more trouble than it is worth, Google will need to step in. While Facebook brings traffic to these sites, Google Adsense is what provides their revenue. Most fake news sites are in violation of the Adsense terms of service to begin with, but Google’s current validation process has failed to stop these sites from being approved. Since most owners of fake news sites are motivated by money and not politics, if they cannot get paid ads on their site, they will not have a reason to bother with the maintenance of their site.
It may take quite some time for any solution to take effect, so in the meantime, it is a good idea to learn how to spot fake news so you do not end up shaping your opinions on important issues based on lies. The first step you should take when reading a news article is to consider the source. Before you take something as truth, make sure you are not reading The Onion. Generally, if you do not recognize the publication, you should search for other organizations/publications reporting on the same issue to make sure the information is factual. Types of publications you should scrutinize are ones that publish satire, hyper-partisan pieces, or highly opinionated “news.” The types of publications described above potentially have a motivation to twist the facts for their audience. These same standards and considerations can also apply to the author. If an author is well known for their extreme views, you may wish to look elsewhere to find objective reporting. Finally, you should also consider your own views and biases. When something coincides with your own views, it is all too easy to just accept it as true without so much as a second thought. I believe all of this can be summed up in one surprisingly relevant quote from Doctor Who, “The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views.”