Hoaxes and blatantly incorrect information have always existed online, but not like they do today. Fake news, or incorrect information that is deliberately published for financial or other gain, became rife in 2016.
While the Internet has improved our lives in many ways, including bringing casinos into our living rooms and offering easy access to a world of information in one click, it has also given rise to phenomena that can lead to some very serious outcomes. Fake news falls squarely into this category.
Bad News Travels Fast
One of the characteristics that distinguish fake news from other erroneous coverage is the sheer size of it, and the effect that it has. Its ability to go viral so quickly is basically down to Facebook, which is visited by roughly 1.79 billion users each month, and Google Search.
Fake news stories start off small, often from a Twitter post or similar, and are then picked up by dedicated websites. When these are shared on Facebook many people visit them, driving their traffic statistics up. This puts them at the top of the results lists for Google Search, generating huge revenue from online advertisers.
Ironically, tools that Facebook intended to help people stay better informed on facts and real news make it even easier for fake news to spread. It’s explicitly easier to read and share articles on the social network, and people seem to be more receptive to stories that target their emotions rather than their intellect.
Driving Force Behind Fake News
With fake news being such a popular money maker, a large portion of fake news generation is financially driven. Some individuals also create fake news simply to observe what happens and how people react to it. This ties into the other reason for fake news generation, which many people feel is the most dangerous; influencing democracies and swaying political outcomes.
Fake News’ Effect On the US Elections
While fake news cannot be completely attributed to the United States Presidential Election of 2016, this is really what brought it to a head and brought it worldwide attention. Stories were planted about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, including the claims that thousands of Trump supporters chanted racist slurs at a rally, and that Clinton was running a child sex ring.
Most fake news in the US election was pro-Trump and anti-Clinton, and much of it seems to have originated from Russia. This has led to comparisons with propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, although thanks to the Internet what is happening now is on a much larger scale. Accusations against Russia led US President Barack Obama to order a full report on Russia’s electoral interference in December 2016, and its results are about to be released.
A Worldwide Backlash
Most legitimate media outlets are aghast at the rise of fake news, branding these stories as psychologically damaging and threatening to democracy. Many world leaders feel similarly, with Sweden and Germany both attempting to take legal steps to prohibit fake news campaigns following the suspected Russian interference in elections.
Google Search and Facebook have both taken action, including banning Fake News sites from using online advertising. Facebook has launched a tool to help detect and report Fake News stories that come up in newsfeeds.
Social commentators have pointed out that people may feel there are situations in which the ends justify the means, and that they’re using fake news for good. As with so much, it can be considered a tool for good and evil, depending on what side you’re looking at it from.