Just about every social media user has seen and shared fake news.
Often, by the time people realise its fake, the damage has been done.

An example is news that emerged in 2013 that an explosion had occurred at the White House, injuring Barack Obama. After the tweet was shared more than 4 000 times, stock prices on the US stock markets began to drop, with $130-billion lost in stock value.

“Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at 126 000 stories that were circulating around the internet,” says Indi Siriniwasa, vice-president of Trend Micro, sub-Saharan Africa. “They looked at 3-million accounts between 2006 and 2017 and what they found was that the fake news spread faster than the truth.

“The sensational nature of a lot of these stories is what makes them more likely to be retweeted.”

The MIT researchers also discovered that fake news will quickly spread to between 1 000 to 10 000 Twitter users. The truth, however, could take six times longer to reach only 1 500 people.

Nowadays it is assumed that bots are being used to perpetuate fake news. This is not the case: humans spread fake news more fake news than any bots can. False political news was found to spread the fastest compared to news on terrorism, natural disasters, science or finance.

“Fake news can be seen as cyber propaganda and it shows no sign of slowing down,” Siriniwasa explains. “Fake news is used to influence opinions, discredit people in various industries, and of course, there is money in it. There are people who wish to run smear campaigns or who will benefit from the results of the propaganda, and there are people who are willing to be paid to make that happen.”

According to Trend Micro’s research, there is an underground marketplace for cyber propaganda, with discrediting a journalist costing $55 000 and creating a celebrity with 300 000 followers going for as little as $2 600. Ultimately, readers of fake news are the machine that keeps it growing.

“Think before you retweet or repost,” Siriniwasa advises. “There are developments going on in the background to provide a ‘trust indicator’ to perhaps filter out the fake news. Until then, the onus is on the user, or the reader, to be the first line of defence.

“Exaggerated headlines are a giveaway. If the article can’t cite trustworthy sources, it is very likely fake. Check the facts. It’s best to get your news from established and reputable news authorities. Let the buck stop with you.”