Fighting Fake News

Aug 9, 2017
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Man reading papers
France has this problem. Actually, the world has it. Back in 1997, James Bond bad guy Elliot Carver boasted “There’s no news like bad news”. Had the movie been made today, it would definitely be “There’s no news like fake news”. So what do we do about it?

FAKE NEWS: FUN OR FOE

 
France and several other countries have set out to fight fake news. Following the flood of insidious claims during the recent presidential elections, it seemed urgent to react. Facebook and Google, witness and party to these ongoing ideology battles are expected to solve the problem.
 
Hoaxes and fake news aren’t always dangerous, some are quite funny actually. French or Belgium websites Le Gorafi or Nordpresse disguise as news website only to publish highly satirical – and often hilarious – articles. You’d think anyone reading a Gorafi article would just laugh it off. But when they tackle political issues, some of their writings are shared along with infuriated taglines. Until someone says “hey, wake up, it’s a Gorafi article”. And those people are usually ignored down along the feed and the article become truth.
 
The harm is done. One can only witness the inclination of the websurfer to share whatever comes their ways with neither analysis nor investigation.
 

THE HEADLINE MANEUVER

The n°1 pitfall is the headline. A carefully scripted headline can help you sell cars and mislead voters. One of the best exemples of mindless sharing was this Science Post article stating that “70% of Facebook users read only the headline of science stories before commenting”. Except, the body of the article was just Lorem Ipsum: the dummy text to fill in space. There’s no article. And it has been shared 58500 times to this day. Isn’t it ironic?
 
To fight this -together with misleading clickbait- Facebook now forbids changing a link’s title. The social network also hunts down fake accounts. Google help users report suspicious articles. But is this enough when many just don’t imagine those articles could be fake?

I WANT TO BELIEVE

 
I have taught teenagers who would swear that the round shape under a McDonald’s bun is an anti-vomiting pill and that McNuggets are made of squashed chicks. With age ranging from 17 to 20, guess how far they are from having to make the decision whether to vaccinate their kids or not. Where will they look for help and who will they believe?
 
French newspapers have launched the Decodex: a website that identifies doubtful sources. The initiative looks good and was largely relayed in the medias which is fair enough since it’s their new baby. The question remains: are medias best equiped to debunk false news? They should, on paper, but the urge to release news before the competition sometimes induces lapses in fact-checking.
 
Not too long ago, the Gorafi (them again!) published an article stating that “98% of men believed the clitoris was a new Toyota car”(I’m still laughing over that one). Except, the Italian news agency Ansa, took it at face value and relayed it as serious news. It was later published in the renowned Corriere Della Sera. Suddenly, I’m not laughing anymore.
 

MIND OVER ALGORITHMS

Are algorithms the answer? Wouldn’t it rather be the development of an investigative mind? One French teacher Rose-Marie Farinella, who works with primary school children, has devised an “hoaxbuster” course. It runs over the whole year with a 45 minute lesson each week. She explains journalistic work, photoshoping, motivations to mislead readers (who gains what?). She helps kids track the history of a picture: how a heartbreaking photo of a tiny muddy girl holding a pup in Urkraine is actually a movie set shot taken in Australia. She teaches them the most important lesson of all: think before you share. Analyse before you speak.
 
Maybe the Internet is just too new for us to master. When man discovered fire, he must have arsonned his way around with glee. When Marie Curie discovered uranium, she poisoned herself to death with it. And we play around with our new internet toy with no thought of the consequences.
 
More important than algorithms and virtual safety nets, our brain should be the decisive tool to fight fake news and hoaxes. That tool need to be trained, optimized through promotion of critical thinking as early as primary school. If we take the time to ponder on a healine and resist the urge to share; then fake news will simply go back to being entertainment in the funny papers. And it will stop making a difference in the polling stations.