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The Rise of ‘Fake News’ in Internet Age: Influencing Election Results, Religious Sentiments and much more

For social media companies like Twitter and the rest, the ability to weed out false information or hate speech can be daunting

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Representational image. VOA

November 30, 2016: A common narrative that emerged during this year’s presidential race was that of a country divided, which experts and pundits say explains the rise – and stunning electoral victory – of Republican Donald Trump over his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

The other story of 2016 is the rise of so-called “fake news” and its spike on social media outlets. Facebook, in particular, has come under fire, having surpassed Google as the biggest driver of audience on all social media platforms.

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This week, Trump again invited controversy — a move now commonly called a “tweet storm” — by tweeting out a claim of voter fraud during the November election that he says denied him the popular vote without citing any evidence.

The “fake news” phenomenon has rattled the web, not to mention mainstream journalists, scholars and ordinary users of social media, many of whom are tweeting and writing op-ed columns, news stories and guides on how to spot inaccurate news stories and fake news websites.

All this has put unprecedented pressure on Facebook, where, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed News, fake election stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election articles from 19 major news outlets in the final three months of the election campaign.

A screenshot of a Buzzfeed News graph on "fake news" analysis (courtesy of Buzzfeed News) VOA
A screenshot of a Buzzfeed News graph on “fake news” analysis (courtesy of Buzzfeed News) VOA

The heat on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg prompted the company to tweak its algorithm to weed out inaccurate information, and later, as the outcry grew, publicly outline steps the company is taking to reduce what Zuckerberg called “misinformation.”

He prefaced his post with a familiar caveat:

“We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties.”

There are legitimate sites, journalists and scholars who are paying attention to the prevalence of fake news. Among them: Snopes.com, Columbia Journalism Review, The Poynter Institute and Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack University, who wrote a Google document with tips on how to spot “fake news” sites or inaccurate news stories for her students.

According to these fact-checkers, we must first understand what “fake news” is – and isn’t.

“We classify ‘fake news’ as specifically web sites that publish information that’s entirely fabricated,” said Kim LaCapria, content manager for Snopes.com, a website that tracks misinformation on the web.

“Right now ‘fake news’ is being applied to ‘slanted and/or inaccurate news,’” added LaCapria. “So there’s some conflation.”

And that conflation of what information can accurately be described as fake or misleading or maybe only partially true, coupled with the warp speed of digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter, have created a perfect storm of confusion, said University of Connecticut philosophy professor and author Michael Lynch.

“Confusion and deception is happening…. and mass confusion about the importance of things like truth follow in the wake of that deception,” said Lynch, who wrote a column in The New York Times this week about impact of “fake news” on the health of America’s political system. “And that is absolutely corrosive to democracy.”

LaCapria, like Lynch, also has seen first-hand how branding everything that is verifiably false ‘fake news’ isn’t really what is happening on social media. “One long-circulating rumor held that Hillary Clinton was fired from the Watergate investigation for lying,” LaCapria said.

“If I recall correctly, we rated it mostly false because the claim originated with someone who had changed his story over the years. But in our politics category, the news is not fake per se. It’s often false, mixture, mostly false or unproven.”

LaCapria points out distorted or false information has existed for a long time.

“This is the first real social media election we’ve ever experienced. And we had two social media candidates: [Bernie] Sanders and Trump,” she said.

President-elect Donald Trump gets ready for a question and answer session on Twitter during his campaign for the presidency. (@realdonaldtrump) VOA
President-elect Donald Trump gets ready for a question and answer session on Twitter during his campaign for the presidency. (@realdonaldtrump) VOA

“Now that people are upset about Trump, they’re looking at social media as a culprit. And it may be a mitigating factor, but this has all definitely been affecting politics hugely for many years.”

The Poynter Institute’s Alexios Mantzarlis, who leads the International Fact-Checking Network, agrees that there is a bit too much angst over “fake news.”

“Politicians distorting the truth isn’t a new phenomenon. Voters choosing politicians based on emotions rather than facts is not a new phenomenon,” Mantzarlis said in an email. “Moreover, we know from research that fact-checking can change readers’ minds.”

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For social media companies like Twitter and the rest, the ability to weed out false information or hate speech can be daunting, no matter how savvy their back-end web engineers may be.

Facebook in essence acknowledged that recoding its algorithm wasn’t enough, when Zuckerberg posted his latest statement about the spreading of misinformation on his platform.

An unidentified person types on a computer keyboard in Los Angeles, Feb. 27, 2013. VOA
An unidentified person types on a computer keyboard in Los Angeles, Feb. 27, 2013. VOA

For Lynch, who wrote “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” a book released earlier this year, there are solutions to help combat the ease of creating “fake news” sites and spreading misinformation across the web.

“There are a lot of smart people working on social media and at universities trying to find algorithmic solutions to misleading content and confusion and deception on the Internet. Right now it’s not working,” he said. But right now I don’t think we should despair about not fixing our technology.”

In terms of fixes, Mantzarlis puts the burden on users.

“For one, headline writers could avoid repeating a baseless claim without any indication that it is unfounded.” Mantzarlis also argues that Facebook will need to hire some human beings to vet content in tandem with creating smarter back-end technology.

“The algorithm itself will have to change … to recognize that ‘fake news,’ and the pages that consistently post them, to get a reduced reach on [the Facebook] News Feed,” he said, adding that this tack will hit “fake news” purveyors where it hurts the most.

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“After all, for many the incentive to publish this content is financial and if the reach is reduced, so is their income.”

Most agree that the overwhelming noise of the Internet — and the much-heralded freedom of speech ethos that rules it — will forever include distortions of fact and outright falsehoods. But ultimately the vast majority of web content is created by people. And in Lynch’s mind, that is where the real power to spot and call out misleading information lies.

“I’ve become convinced that as I’ve gone around talking to people, including those in Silicon Valley … is that we as individuals, as people, need to start taking responsibility for what we believe. And for what we share and tweet.” (VOA)

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Facebook Acquires the Anonymous Teenage Polling App ‘tbh’

An official statement from Facebook said: "tbh and Facebook share a common goal -- of building community and enabling people to share in ways that bring us closer together"

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Facebook brings the developers of 'tbh' app to share and expand a common goal of making stronger communities. Pixabay

San Francisco, October 17, 2017 : Facebook has acquired ‘tbh’, an anonymous polling app for teenagers which has over 5 million downloads and 2.5 million daily active users in the US.

The app lets teenagers anonymously answer kind-hearted, multiple-choice questions about friends, who then receive the poll results as compliments, TechCrunch reported on Tuesday.

“When we set out to build tbh, we wanted to create a community that made us feel happier and more confident about ourselves. We felt that people craved genuine and positive interactions in their online experiences,” ‘tbh’ said in a statement.

“Over the last few weeks, over 5 million people have downloaded tbh and sent over a billion messages. More importantly, we’ve been inspired by the countless stories where tbh helped people recover from depression and form better relationships with friends,” it read.

ALSO READ How Facebook is Helping Its Users Fight Identity Theft

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed but according to TechCrunch, it is likely to be somewhere around less than $100 million and will not require regulatory approval.

“As part of the deal, tbh’s four co-creators — Bier, Erik Hazzard, Kyle Zaragoza and Nicolas Ducdodon — will join Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters while continuing to grow their app,” the report added.

“When we met with Facebook, we realised that we shared many of the same core values about connecting people through positive interactions. Most of all, we were compelled by the ways they could help us realise tbh’s vision and bring it to more people,” ‘tbh’ said.

In a statement to TechCrunch, Facebook said: “tbh and Facebook share a common goal — of building community and enabling people to share in ways that bring us closer together”. (IANS)

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Facebook doesn’t Hire Journalists, says Sheryl Sandberg

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Sheryl Sandberg quoted that Facebook doesn't hire Journalists. ians

San Francisco, Oct 14: As people debate Facebook’s role in influencing people during the US presidential elections by Russian ads and fake news on the platform, the company’s COO Sheryl Sandberg has stressed that the social media giant is not a media organization, and therefore does not hire journalists.

Sandberg said that Facebook is run by technical workers and engineers and according to her, the company does not produce news content, therefore it can’t be a media company.

In an interview with US-based news website Axios on Thursday, she said, “At our heart we are a tech company. We hire engineers. We don’t hire reporters. No one is a journalist.”

“We don’t cover the news. But when we say that, we’re not saying we don’t have a responsibility. In fact we’re a new kind of platform… as our size grows, we think we have more responsibility,” the executive was quoted as saying.

Business Insider said a firm that is a major source of news and information for people, generates billions in ad revenue and is producing its own original television shows is classified as a media company and Facebook does all of that.

Contrary to her claim, it hired former NBC anchor Campbell Brown in January to head up the company’s news division and work with other journalists to maximise their use of Facebook’s platform.

Reportedly, Facebook does not want to harm its $500 billion valuations by admitting it is a media company. If the company accepts that it is a media firm, it would open the platform up to regulatory rules in the US and other countries which Facebook would rather avoid.

Facebook
Facebook Ads were considered during US Presidential Elections. Pixabay

Business Insider said Britain was already considering regulations that would treat it more like a media company.

Meanwhile, on the Russian ad issue, Sandberg said the election meddling on the platform “shouldn’t have happened” and she wouldn’t discuss Russia or Trump.

“We know we have a responsibility to prevent everything we can from this happening on our platforms… and so we told Congress and the Intelligence committees that when they are ready to release the ads, we are ready to help them,” she said.

Sandberg said that if the Russian-linked ads were posted by “real people” and not fake accounts, Facebook would have let their content remain on the site. “When you allow free expression, you allow free expression.”

“Facebook owes the American people an apology. Not just an apology, but determination for our role in enabling Russian interference during the election,” she said. (IANS)

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Facebook Chief Operating Officer Supports Releasing Russia-linked Advertisements

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Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, delivers a speech during the visit of a start-up companies gathering at Paris' Station F, in Paris. voa

Washington, October 12: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said Thursday she “absolutely” supports the public release of all advertisements produced by a Russia-linked organization during the 2016 presidential election.

Sandberg said the company is “working on transparency” following the revelation last month that a group with alleged ties to the Russian government ran $100,000 worth of ads on Facebook promoting “divisive” causes like Black Lives Matter.

“Things happened on our platform that shouldn’t have happened,” she said during the interview with Axios’s Mike Allen.

Later Thursday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer is set to meet with Congressional investigators who are looking into what role the advertisements which began running in 2015 and continued through this year may have played in the 2016 presidential election.

The $100,000 worth of ads represent a very small fraction of the total $2.3 billion spent by, and on behalf of, President Donald Trump and losing-candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaigns during the election.

Multiple congressional investigations have been launched, seeking to determine what effect alleged Russian meddling may have played in the election.

In addition, Robert Mueller, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is conducting a criminal probe, including whether President Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian operatives during the election season. Trump has denied working with the Russians.

Facebook had previously agreed to disclose the thousands of Facebook ads to congress. Sandberg said Thursday she thinks “it’s important that [the investigators] get the whole picture and explain that to the American people.”

In response to the Russian ad buys, Facebook Chief Operating Officer said that company is hiring 4,000 new employees to oversee ads and content. She said the company is also using “machine learning and automation” to target fake accounts that spread fake news.

She defined fake news as “things that are false hoaxes” and said Facebook is working to stamp out the bad information by teaming up with third-party fact checkers and warning users before they share news deemed fake by Facebook.

She said it is important to be cautious when going after fake news because “a lot of what we allow on Facebook is people expressing themselves” and “when you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for all people.”

“We don’t check the information posted on Facebook before people post it, and I don’t think people should want us to,” she said.

Hundreds of fake accounts were used to distribute the Russia-linked advertisements, Sandberg said. But had those ads been posted by legitimate users, “we would have let them run,” she said.(VOA)