The past few years have seen a flood of fake news articles and websites drowning the Internet. Although the term “fake news” usually conjures up wildly implausible tales, with fantastical headlines designed to draw the user in, in truth, it goes way beyond that, to disinformation campaigns, cyber propaganda, cognitive hacking, and information warfare.
Anvee Alderton from Trend Micro says fake news is simply one facet of the bigger problem: the manipulation of public opinion to affect the real world.
Trend Micro recently released a research paper titled “The Fake News Machine: How Propagandists Abuse the Internet and Manipulate the Public”, which delves into the various aspects of fake news and cyber propaganda.
Alderton says that there is nothing new about fake news. “Propaganda has been around for hundreds of years. The Internet is merely a new, and easy means of spreading misinformation. The connectivity and digital platforms we have today make it child’s play to share and spread information, without the traditional challenges such as physical borders and the constraints of time and distance.”
The removal of these constraints has unfortunately also made it easier to manipulate the public’s perception of reality and the way they think, which has resulted in the slew of fake news articles that affect our lives. “This speaks to the real impact the technological manipulation of public opinion can have on our everyday lives.”
She says although fake news campaigns are executed with slight differences on each platform, in the context of social media and the Internet fake news campaigns need three elements to succeed. “We call this the ‘fake news triangle’. Much in the same way as a fire needs three elements to burn, namely oxygen, heat and fuel, fake news needs three elements too – tools and services, social networks, and motivation. In both cases, all three factors must be present in order for it to work.”
She says the tools and services for manipulating and spreading the message across relevant social media networks, are freely available from various online communities around the world. “There is a staggering variety. Some are relatively simple, such as paid likes or followers, while others are more complex, having the ability to stuff online polls. Others still can force site owners to take down stories.”
However, without social networks to spread propaganda, these tools would be redundant, says Alderton. “With millions of individuals around the world using these sites to get their news and information, they are a perfect platform for spreading fake news. Spammers have invented clever techniques to lure social media users into reading their stories.”
Lastly, there’s the question of motivation. “There’s always a question of ‘why’. Sometimes the motivation is financial, a spammer wants to earn money through spam and advertising. Sometimes the motivations are more sinister, with a criminal or political agenda. Either way, the true measure of success for any propaganda campaign can only be how it affects the real world.”
So how do we fight fake news? “Public and private sector organisations are realising how serious the manipulation of public opinion can be and understand it needs to be actively fought. Several government agencies are setting up services aimed at debunking stories that they believe to be false, and are debating imposing regulations and penalising websites, including social media sites, that publish false information. This could be very bad for business, and social media networks are taking steps to prevent it such as suspending suspicious accounts and allowing users to report fake news.”
However, Alderton says at the end of the day, it boils down to user education. “There are several ways to spot fake news that people should be aware of. Consider the source and supporting sources. Check out the author, and read beyond the sensational heading. Consult a fact-checking site and check the date of the article.”