UOSM2008: The “fake news” bubble and how to (potentially) handle it

Unsplash (Kayla Velasquez)

This post is part of a series published as part of the University of Southampton’s Living and Working on the Web module. To find out more, including links to all of this year’s student blogs, check out the UOSM2008 website.

Task: Evaluate how to assess the reliability and authenticity of online information

The “fake news” bubble

“Fake news” is an inescapable term of the zeitgeist, in part thanks to politicians using it to discredit journalists (Juliane Lischka, 2017), Macedonian teenagers creating hoaxes to share widely across Facebook for easy ad revenue (Samanth Subramanian, 2017; Craig Silverman, 2016), discussions around journalistic standards (James Ball, 2017Mark Di Stefano, 2018), and social networks endlessly vacillating on how best to handle it all (Mark Zuckerberg, 2017; Adam Mosseri, 2018, Alex Kantrowitz, 2018). Google Trends data shows an explosion in related search activity around 2016’s US elections and close associations with Donald Trump, broadcasters like CNN and Fox, and verification services like Snopes.

Web search interest in the term "fake news" between January 2004 and March 2018. Source: Google Trends.
Web search interest in the term “fake news” between January 2004 and March 2018. Source: Google Trends.

However, its history is deeper. In this video I recorded with Adam Rann and Ryan Dodd for the UOSM2012 module last year, we investigate how the phenomenon came to be.

How to (potentially) handle it

In a New Statesman extract from his book on the subject, James Ball (2017) points to five actions readers can take to dispel these post-truth trends.

  • Proactively seek content from contrasting sources to prevent filter bubbles, where algorithmic personalisation and our curation limit the viewpoints we’re exposed to online (Eli Pariser, 2011)
  • React with careful consideration, verifying sources and assessing credibility before sharing
  • Improve statistical literacy to better understand poor, misleading, or inaccurate data presentation (John Burn-Murdoch, 2013; Agata Kwapien, 2015)
  • Approach everything – not just what we’re inclined to disbelieve – with skepticism
  • Resist baseless conspiracy, lest help fuel anti-expertise sentiment (Henry Mance, 2016)

How can we apply this framework to an example? Here’s one from the “Learning in the Network Age” MOOC (FutureLearn, 2017):

MOOC Fake News Example
Source: FutureLearn (University of Southampton)

The headline may be eye-catching, the URL plausible (KTLA is a genuine broadcaster), and “sources” reputable (NASA and Caltech researchers). However, there are telltale signs that this is fake, such as the author’s name (Jonah Oaxer = Jon, A Hoaxer), the lack of corroborating external sources, and the extreme language (e.g. “NASA”‘s “our days are numbered”). Additionally, other content on the site is outdated (e.g. a privacy policy updated in 2016) and of a similar clickbait nature designed for viral sharing rather than credible journalism.

Bibliography

Word count: 300

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Author: Xavier Voigt-Hill

I write words.

7 thoughts on “UOSM2008: The “fake news” bubble and how to (potentially) handle it”

  1. Hi Xavier! I am very impressed by the style of your blog, it looks very sleek and professional.

    I am interested in the different types of media that seem to harbour these fake news stories. Statistics show that social media is the most prevalent supplier of fake news towards the public: https://www.statista.com/statistics/672275/fake-news-traffic-source/

    My question for you is: Why do you think that fake news spreads wider and much more rapidly via social media platforms such as twitter and facebook?

    Your post was a great read and I look foreword to hearing from you!

    1. Thanks Sam! To answer your question, I think a fair bit of the issue lies simply in how audiences find content today. Facebook is – or, at least until recent News Feed algorithm changes designed to encourage further interaction on Facebook itself rather than diversions to external sites, was – the single biggest driver of readers to publishers, and through sharing mechanics these services make it ridiculously easy for people to spread any story far and wide through their network of friends or followers.

      https://www.recode.net/2017/12/11/16748026/google-facebook-publisher-traffic-2017-increase

      Additionally, as I noted on Tom Pethick’s blog, there seems to be a strong tendency from social media users to share things without having actually taken the time to assess, analyse, or even read or open them. One could very easily be taken in by a belief-affirming lede and then rush to express outrage – I suspect there are folks like this amongst my Facebook friends for sure.

      https://tomsuosmblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/assessing-reliability-and-authenticity-on-the-web-mainstream-media/#comment-8

      Finally, as we touched upon briefly in our video, I think the homogenous presentation of content through social media is another significant contributing factor. When content is displayed outside its original context thanks to Open Graph markup, as you scroll there’s no clear and immediate distinction in presentation between something from, say, the New York Times and our fake news site News 4 KTLA. More media-literate users (such as ones that have taken in your infographic guide) may spot some tell-tale signs, but the Web has taken us significantly away from the days of old when there’d be a significant gulf in what amateurs, hoaxers, and professionals could do to present their ideas.

      https://developers.facebook.com/docs/sharing/webmasters

  2. Hi Xavier,

    A very interesting blog this week! Your video in particular was such a unique way to highlight fake news but it was very gripping to watch! This helped indicate to me the lure of click bait headings and how they can draw people in, I couldn’t stop watching!

    The way you highlighted ways to spot fake news and then applied it to an article was brilliant. What an effective was to showcase how easy and quick steps are to understand the reliability of a source, although admittedly some of the points you spotted I may have not been able to, such as the name of the author!

    The graph highlighting web interest in fake news was very interesting, why do you think only recently there has been such a spike though when speedy internet connection has existed for quite some time now? Do you believe social media truly is the only reason?

    Nikhita

    1. Thanks Nikhita, glad to hear you enjoyed the video! Might have to try some more content like that for the upcoming topics…

      That’s a very good question – “fake news” as a term is certainly something that’s only erupted in usage and the public conscience over the last two years, but its foundational principles have much stronger heritage, whether through satire, propaganda, clickbait, biased/inaccurate reporting, or plain old spam.

      If we’re talking about today’s particular bubble of it all, such as the examples you’ve discussed on your blog, it certainly seems to be fuelled by a confluence of factors. Rather than being strictly a social media problem, it seems indicative of wider cultural issues shaping activity on the tools that we happen to be using now. Through 2016’s marginally ludicrous political climate – see Brexit and Trump – there seemed to be widespread distrust emerging towards existing structures and governance, offering more influence to media that claimed to be speaking unabashed truth, whether amateur, partisan, or created for ad money by Macedonian teenagers.

      For a really fascinating take on how we got here, I would thoroughly recommend James Ball’s book. Again, it largely looks at 2016 in the wider world as the catalyst for all this – my best answer for why this has happened so prominently now and not any sooner is just that extraordinary shift of the political climate meeting disenfranchisement regarding the media. What do you reckon?

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