By Donovan Makus
On the morning of September 11th, 2014, residents of St. Mary Parish, Louisiana were greeted by text messages, tweets, and news reports of an explosion at the nearby Columbian Chemicals Plant. A video of a burning chemical plant was posted on Youtube, and not long after, a Wikipedia page started. There was just one complication: the explosion never took place. Hundreds of texts and tweets were sent, including official-looking news agency reports, all indicating a threat to the area from the chemical explosion, yet in the end, the entire order of events was a complete and utter lie. The Youtube video depicted another event, the Wikipedia page was dutifully scrubbed, and the tweets disappeared, superseded by more recent information. Yet, after the texts settled, the unnerving reality that somewhere, some group had faked a chemical explosion for seemingly no reason, should make us think twice about our sources of information.
We’re sometimes told we’re living in an information age; we’ve left the industrial age behind and now our lives are shaped by the constant flow of information we encounter every day. Connectivity is only one tap on your phone’s power button away. In this environment, we know that we should be mindful of “fake news,” usually defined as information or news that purposely misleads to push an agenda. This incident demonstrates how pervasive and well-organized modern information warfare has become. While, thanks to President Trump, fake news has only recently entered the mainstream lexicon, it has been subject to scholarly interest for some time. This scholarly work has accelerated after the 2016 American election, and 2014 Crimean campaign with research articles that offer keen insights into human nature and how we make sense of our complex world.
On March 9th, researchers associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published an extensive meta-analysis, the first of its size to date, of tweets sent between 2006 and 2017. They discovered a proliferation of fake news and, concerningly, that false tweets had an even greater spread and impact. Interestingly, despite the popular narrative of bots being the primary driver of propaganda, they found that bots were equally likely to pass on fake and real news; it was the human factor that enabled fake news to spread voraciously. The exact reasons for this are still being researched and may never be conclusively answered, but these researchers found that fake news stories lead to more feelings of disgust, fear, and surprise–more negative emotions than real news conjured up.
These findings do not exist in isolation. They’re related to another modern phenomenon that threatens the veracity of information: information silos. The success of social networks depends on their ability to keep you logging on, and to do this, they need users to interact. Similar to real-life conversations, online networks function better when the participants share something in common, be it a school, hobby, or beliefs. The success of social networks in aligning people with similar beliefs is great news for those seeking ideological bedfellows, however, as it has led to social networks becoming echo chambers, where affirming messages spread like wildfire inside like-minded networks, while uncomfortable truths that contradict the ideological silos prevailing ideas fail to gain the same traction. Two researchers found that those blatant enough to put their political views in their profiles were most politically engaged; the median share of friends who held the opposing political view was a mere 18-20%, lower than you would expect in real-life social groups. This research takes us in a new, uncomfortable, direction. While paid propaganda definitely plays an increasingly large part in driving fake news, maybe the answer to why fake news has taken off is that it’s our own human nature which drives these stories. We simply haven’t had the right opportunities to truly allow fake news to spread.
Fake news isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is the response, and in an age where thousands of tweets are sent each second, we owe it to ourselves and those around us to vet the information we’re seeing and passing along. Spreading falsehoods purposely is a practice dating back to ancient times, with ancient kings being noted for exaggerating tales of their marital prowess. Fake news back then was restricted by how difficult it was to spread, long before the invention of the printing press, radio, or internet it took more time and money to get a message to the masses. However, with these inventions, successive innovations in fake news were unlocked. In this age of information, it’s only natural that conflict would find its way into social media, be it the organic variety produced when vocal people with different views interact or the paid variety spread by state and non-state actors seeking a defined political goal. Russian information warfare, in particular, has generated a great deal of press, starting with their concerted effort to recast their 2014 Crimean campaign, particularly the MH-17 shot down, in a more favourable light. While the use of fake news to generate political chaos or undermine trust in public institutions remains a real threat, the researchers’ focus on the human factor in spreading fake news should be our focus as well. Analysis of the Louisiana chemical explosion hoax showed that one reason the hoax failed to gain steam was that it was primarily spread by bots, and that when real people share fake news, it spreads more effectively.
Today, fake news is easier to spread than ever before, simplified by the low entry burden to participate on mediums such as Facebook and Twitter. Yet the means of protecting ourselves from falling prey to it remain the same: break up the ideological silos of our lives, seeking diverse sources of information, and always being sceptical. These are all traits or activities university is supposed to develop in us to truly make us critical thinkers, and in our present, information-rich landscape, these are crucial skills to possess.They are also certainly something we should consider before we hit the retweet or share buttons.