"Fake news" - websites disseminating news stories that are false but are believed to be true - was a major feature of the U.S. election season. One study indicated that fake news sites were receiving more online engagement on the top 20 stories three months before the election than news from 19 major media sources, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Some observers believe that it determined the outcome of the election, although there is no way to definitively ascertain its effect on voting.
However, it is clear that there are multiple online sites dedicated to developing fake news, not just about U.S. politics but about a bevy of issues.
Some sites appear to have been developed simply as job opportunities pursued by computer-savvy people both in the U.S. and globally. They derive revenue from the dissemination of fake news and the ads that appear on it. Others are run by people attempting to influence public thinking on issues.
It isn't just that fake news is being created and disseminated, of course. It's that many people cannot distinguish between real news and fake news. In a survey of 3,000 people shown both real and fake news headlines, 75% believed that the fake news headlines were real.
Fake News Is Technology News
Fake news is news that affects the digital universe profoundly. Fake news grew because of the ease of creating and disseminating websites and stories that look and read as credible as real news sites (at least to many people). Old media traditionally has an editorial review process and ethics standards that work against the development of fake news in the first place, to say nothing of its dissemination. New media currently do not have either in place.
Fake news is disseminated on social media platforms just because dissemination of information without vetting has always been a feature of those platforms. This was designed to facilitate communication - no one removes a negative comment about a restaurant on Facebook. On the positive side, this means that everyone's opinion can be disseminated.
The awareness of fake news, though, reveals a downside - or perhaps a loophole - of the freedom to post.
And fake news may beget fake news. News and social media channels increasingly utilize algorithms to ascertain what stories are engaged with. The user is then fed more of those stories. A peruser of fake news may thus receive more and more of same.
The other Facebook is not the only media company to be an inadvertent host for fake news, but it is by far the largest, with roughly 2 billion users each month. Indeed, Facebook's role as a player in the fake news arena reveals one of the potential causes of fake news: the scale and reach of the platform, for both creators of fake news and its audience.
What the Future May Hold
Forbes indicates that the fallout from fake news during the election cycle may cause advertisers to pull back from Facebook, as it is less "brand safe" than formerly. If unchecked, fake news could impact the perceived credibility of online sites where fake news runs.
Since the election, Facebook has announced plans to refine and increase automated detection of fake news and to make reporting of suspected stories easier for Facebook users.
It has also indicated that the current ad system will be changed, to interfere with fake news sites receiving revenue from Facebook.
It is also possible that digital developers will create new algorithms to stop the augmented receipt of fake news stories to an interested populace. These are complicated, though, so any changes in this area may be further in the future than the changes Facebook announced.
In the meantime, the best way to guard against fake news is for the reader to think and use discernment before believing everything that read or hear. That may be too high a mountain to climb for a generation of people who would, in Albert Einstein's words, "rather die than think."