XXI century information: the fake news world.
Many important electoral events occurred in 2016. From the British referendum on the European permanence to the Italian constitutional referendum through to the US presidential election, issues regarding voting were frequently discussed and at times even highly controversial. Newspapers, online media and social networks focused intensely on these ballots and the campaigns and media events leading up to them, running off hundreds of thousands of articles and spreading news that was sometimes of dubious authenticity.
In his celebrated novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Oscar Wilde remarked “for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” and this sentence reflects exactly how our contemporary society centres around communication and the rapid diffusion of information.
Nowadays Fake News and Post truth society are expressions we hear repeated daily by the media though 10 years ago they did not exist. Fake news did of course exist 10 years ago but it was somehow less influential and less common on the web. The Macquire Dictionary chose “Fake news” as the 2016 word of the year due to the central role the expression played in each election campaign while “Post Truth” was chosen as word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary. Obviously, these choices were neither casual nor superfluous, they were the result of last year’s intense political discourse and debate. The phenomenon of “Fake news” is not under anyone’s direct control and often such items quickly go viral on the web.
Fake News in Post truth society.
If the cheap cost of paper helped to increase newspaper production and distribution in the XIX century, Internet has done something similar in the XXI century. The main difference lies in the truthfulness and propriety of the news in question: there have been rare case of invented news items in newspapers over the centuries and when they happened, they were identified and unmasked. One of the most famous examples was the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, where the New York Sun published six articles about life and even civilization on the Moon, supposedly discovered by John Herschel, a famous astronomers of that time. A rival newspaper easily revealed the untrue news but it remains one of the most famous episodes in history.
Another famous example of information fallacy it is Orson Welles‘s radio lecture of “The war of the worlds” where his divine 62 minutes performance created hysteria and aliens fear into the American population. Thousands of inhabitants from the major east cities in the US fled their home to run away terrifying for Martian arrival. After a couple of hours the media ensured the entire population; this episode showed the strength of new mass media and the power of communication in the XX century.
The US presidential election was an incredible example of how the fake news mechanism works. Social media and the internet were full of news items that were deliberately false, designed to confuse the electorate and to condition the vote in November. The first question that begs answering is who made it?
The American online newspaper Buzzfeed has conducted an accurate research on this topic. They were looking for the birthplace of thousands of fake news stories that filled the social media and they found it in the Macedonian city of Veles.
“Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.”
These fake news creators did not act for any political motive – they were teenagers or young men from Macedonia, unrelated to US Presidential campaign – instead, they were moved by financial reasons. They exploited click bating to make extra money, working on the principle that the more resonant the news, the more clicks they will achieve on their websites, thus increasing data traffic and their own business. The main reason for making so much money is the headline: they usually wrote sensational headlines that caught the readers’ attention and made them click on the link.
Like everything else, thanks to globalization today, the information sector has become an open market: there are offers – in this case, fake news – because there are consumers willing to buy the product. Following this basic analysis, we can consider the entire world that moves around information – social media, website, newspaper – as a modern market where readers are consumers, consumers who are not seeking the truth but satisfactory, attractive news.
We can clearly observe this fact in some examples taken from the US Presidential campaign or the British Referendum, known as Brexit. Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton’s arms deal with ISIS are probably two of the biggest and more infamous hoaxes. After being fact-checked, it quickly became apparent that these stories were almost entirely fabricated. The first was posted on WTOE 5 News and then was republished by a well know fake news page called Ending the Fed. The second one on Hilary Clinton appeared on the net after Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was interviewed in the middle of July.
We can easily find fake news related to Brexit from both sides, the Leave and Remain campaigns, but the time frame is very interesting: all the fake news favouring the Leave campaign were released prior to the referendum on 24 June while the Remain campaign hoaxes appeared on the days following the vote. The most popular hoax for the Leave campaign was that £350million a week would be spent on the National Health System if the UK backed a Brexit vote and was defined as a ‘mistake’ by Leave leader Nigel Farage. A couple of days after the vote some Remain websites published a correlation between the electoral constituencies where Leave won and the territorial distribution of mad cow disease: this was an ironic and sarcastic article that was completely misunderstood by readers and Remain supporters.
“But the boundary between satire and real news is a vast grey area. Distributed – largely on Facebook – alongside deliberately false stories and partisan coverage, whether pumped out to suck up advertising revenue or for ideological reasons, it might not be immediately obvious to some that Real News Right Now is satire.”
In both case, however, fake news did help to achieve a victory: Trump and the Leave party reaped benefit from misleading information and those news items influenced the electorate. How could it have been possible?
The next week, we will consider why fake news works so well today and focus on its strong points. We will underline the main point to build up a trustworthy hoax.
A cura di Filippo Fibbia