signed an order that bans the Pledge of Allegiance in schools,“ “Pope Francis shocks the world and supports Donald Trump as president,“ or “ISIS leaders encourage American Muslims to vote for Hillary Clinton.“ These catchy headlines have one thing in common – they are all fake. This is not real news but fake reports that have been disseminated on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This is a problem, since social media is becoming increasingly relevant in spreading news. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of adult Americans use Facebook as a source of news. A further problem arises in the way in which Facebook works. The network oversees the influx of news between its users, but it can’t exert any editorial oversight. Spectacular fake headlines also attract more readers, which is automatically registered at Facebook and therefore artificially heightens the value of these fake reports when other users are given article suggestions.
This is how it was possible, during the US presidential elections, that a fake report, according to which ten thousand preemptively filled-out voting ballots favouring Hillary Clinton were found next to ballot boxes in a warehouse in Ohio, could spread so rapidly. The author of the post, an unemployed college graduate, placed this report on an Internet site that he had leased for that purpose, styled the page like a news site, and added an archival photo he had found online to the report. In this way, the report was shared by six million users on different social media sites! In Germany, apart from the Lisa case (see DM 02/2017), an invented quote from the Green politician Renate Künast created a furore. In connection with the murder of a student in Freiburg and the arrest of a suspect, a quote that was attributed to Künast started making the rounds on various Facebook sites. “The traumatised young refugee killed someone, but we must still help him,“ the politician was supposed to have told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “That quote is completely made up,“ Künast clarified later after the words were already going viral online. Apart from its content, the Green politician also lamented that it took three full days until Facebook finally deleted the entry.
In order for social media networks to confront fake news and messages of hate more effectively in the future, the government is now planning a law against fake news. According to the SPD faction leader Thomas Oppermann, market-dominating platforms such as Facebook should be legally obligated to establish legal protection units in Germany. These should be available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Those affected should be able to turn to them and explain that they have become victims of fake news. “If Facebook, after a corresponding investigation, doesn’t delete the post after 24 hours, Facebook must face serious fines of up to 500,000 euros,“ the SPD faction leader explained. The Federal Minister of Justice Heiko Maas complained in the Bild newspaper: “Facebook also earns a lot of money with fake news. Whoever is making millions in profits online also has a social responsibility. Criminal defamations must immediately be deleted after being flagged.“ That last point at least is supposed to improve after Facebook announced that dubious posts will be marked as “contentious“ for all users to see. Mark Zuckerberg’s company makes it easy for itself though, since it rarely agrees to interfere in the content of its users’ newsfeed and instead argues for individual responsibility. “We believe in giving people a vote and not acting as if we are the judges of the truth,“ Facebook manager Adam Mosseri said.
Of equal importance to the legal framework and the improvement of the networks is also an improvement in education. Everyone should be able to detect what is correct and what isn’t. “A big problem is that fake news managed to implant itself very well in our society,“ Linus Neumann, from the Chaos Computer Club at ARD said. It’s problematic that people are not able to evaluate a news source. There needs to be awareness raising so that people can identify fake news sites on their own. More digital education is also demanded by Sam Wineburg, a professor of educational studies at Stanford University. “We live in a completely new reality. Before there was the Internet, experts would speak about their areas of expertise and journalists would proof and analyse information. That responsibility that they had taken on for us in the past is now placed on each individual online. That has never before happened in the history of mankind,“ he said in a Zeit interview. He also reported how studies at US schools have shown that a majority of students cannot differentiate between news and propaganda or PR reports. Therefore it is important that schools introduce media studies as a requirement and teach students how to evaluate news and its sources.
As long as there are no required classes for this subject in schools yet, students and others who are interested can turn to the nonprofit organisation Mimikama (the name means “I like it“ in Swahili). Mimikama became known through its Facebook campaign ZDDK (First think - then click), that concerned itself with fake news. On their website under mimikama.at/allgemein/fake-news-erkennen, there are a couple of rules that suggest how to spot fake news articles:
1. An exaggerated headline: A drastic cut in content under the guise of wanting to transmit information prudently should be the first sign of alarm. Many opinions, little content, an unreliable source – if it’s even present at all –, and extremely short and almost headline-like writing should be consumed with care.
2. Who is even writing this? It’s important to look at the masthead of a website or a blog. Are these transparent and serious people, or are you dealing with a random and unsearchable PO box address in the middle of nowhere? Or is there even no masthead at all? The lack of any contact information is very suspect. It’s also important to differentiate whether the site is an opinion blog or a serious press site.
3. Do a content-check: is this content found on other media sites as well? A Google search under the news tab can help determine this. Was this topic written about by different journalists, or is the same content copy- pasted on anonymous blogs? If parts of the headline are put into Google, sites that pop up with the same phrasing will indicate that this content has not been examined by other news sources.
4. Photo check: crazy situations with accompanying photos – does this photo belong to a story or did the photo create the story? This “hybrid fake,“ which is very common, either uses a photo that depicts a real situation but is accompanied by a fake report, or has a real news report but the corresponding picture has nothing to do with the context. A reverse image search on Google, TinEye Reverse Image Search, or Yandex can help with this.
5. Using filters in search engines: if you notice that a result is not as new as a website is trying to make it out to be, then a time filter should be applied.
6. The Mimikama search engine: presuming that a particular topic has already been written about, the search engine http:// hoaxsearch.com/ can easily search for fake news.
Pictures: 1 = Department for Communities and Local Government (flickr.com) | 2 = Fibonacci Blue (flickr.com) | 3 = Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (flickr.com) | 4 = mimikama | 5 = Metropolico.org (flickr.com)