As Readers, We’re Not Powerless to Fight Fake News

Social media sites can combat online propaganda, but individuals should take steps, too.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Feb 2017 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

Fake News is over, as a trendy term, and now everyone is calling it what it really is: propaganda.

Except for the new regime in the White House of course, where they’re calling it “alternative facts.” In a twist straight out of Orwell’s 1984, the president called a CNN reporter “fake news” for asking him a question he didn’t want to answer.

But whatever you call it, the fact remains that if you get your news online you have to stay alert if you want to separate the alternative facts from the real ones. Which is where some research by an Elon University communications professor comes in.

Jonathan Albright looked at the mechanics of how misinformation spreads online and it turns out that Facebook isn’t the main culprit. The fakers are circulating their inventions the old-fashioned way, by sending the story links through email and linking the stories to legitimate sites like the New York Times or YouTube.

To show how the propaganda industry works, Albright did a graphic of his research, which reveals the junk sites hovering like satellites around legitimate websites, with masses of red threads between them, showing links.

The propagandists also send a small army of digital elves, human and robot, to add links to their dodgy sites in the comments sections of legitimate, general interest news sites. The Russian propagandists are particularly active and most comments sections have regular posters who urge readers to have a look at RT television, Sputnik News, and the long list of websites that will assure you Vladimir Putin and his dictator pals, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, are all beloved leaders.

The postings are often unintentionally comic in way the short-fingered vulgarian’s Twitter feed is a scream — so outrageous you can’t help but laugh. Well, until you remember whose tiny hands are on the nukes. So we’re all tempted to take a look at the links, just out of curiosity.

Then, since most of us use Google, the bots will think we like that sort of thing. The search engines are optimized to respond to all our online activities, including the sites we visit and the links we share. Search results rank the findings of a search based on what they think we’re likely to want. It makes the search engine more useful when we’re shopping for shoes.

But it’s not so useful when it comes to informing citizens. And if you follow the links to enough dodgy sites it will have an impact on what you see on Google news, as well as in search. Eventually, you will start seeing fanciful tales to the effect that the U.S.’s new first lady is a Russian spy reporting back to Putin.

Again, it’s comic. Not to mention being a fine plot for a TV series. But in the daily struggle to stay informed it’s also an annoying distraction. So while I see freedom of speech and freedom of the press as crucial to democracy — I’m appalled at the number of people calling for censorship — I also find that constantly sorting through fake news crap is a time-suck. So I resist the bots with a number of tools, including alternate search engines. Duck Duck Go is a well-established alternative that let’s you do an end-run around the Google bots, but there are plenty of options including Yippy and StartPage.

The upshot is that I see very few of those fake news stories — from either the lefty propagandists or the authoritarian right-wingers — unless I go hunting for them. As for the stupid stories that show up via people’s Facebook posts, I control that by “unfollowing” the people who post this nonsense. You remain connected as friends, so you’re not insulting your clueless uncle who loves this stuff, but you ensure that he doesn’t waste your time, either.

The list of sites pandering to liberals is shorter, suggesting that what one of the commercial fake news producers told NPR’s Planet Money may be true: right-wingers are just more likely to “take the bait.”

As for some of the worst of the online fraudsters, Google is already on the case. One approach is to make it hard for the junk sites to profit from their inventions by kicking them out of the Google ads program. So the boys in the Balkans, who had the right-wingers in lather over sensational anti-Clinton stories, can no longer make a tidy profit with their lies.

Facebook has also been experimenting with AIs — artificial intelligence robots — filtering content, but that raises new problems. In the fall, the social media site came under fire for writes in The Guardian. “But I can see where we might be headed: the suppression of alternative voices and the censorship of content that addresses certain issues.”

But I think there is a practical solution to propaganda: individual citizens have to take a DIY approach to excluding it. As news consumers, we need develop the digital version of the reflex that makes us ignore the National Enquirer on the magazine rack. And that begins with developing online habits that prevent us noticing the junk in the first place.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Has the IPCC climate change report made you :

Take this week's poll