Faked Out by Fake News
For months we've heard reports of how Russia was involved in last year's election in the US by spreading fake news, but we never realized how successful it was. Until now.
Facebook is now admitting over 100 million Americans may have seen messages from Russian misinformation agents, but whether Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the election were hampered because of the bogus posts is another story.
It's amazing to think the Russians found a way to get information in front of over 100 million Americans and now the question is, is fake news here to stay both in the US and in Canada?
Fake News = Big Business
Two days ago it was revealed as many as 126 million people, or one-third of the US population may have seen material posted by a Russian troll firm under bogus Facebook identities between 2015 and earlier this year.
There’s no word on how many Canadians saw these fake news posts, but I’m sure it’s a big number, because of posts being shared.
Facebook’s lawyers made the admission, saying the Russian “misinformation agency” used original content in users’ feeds, along with paid ads. Previously Facebook said only around 10 million people were exposed to the fake content. Now that number is over 12 times larger.
It’s just not Facebook. Twitter, Google and YouTube are reporting they’re discovering all kinds of bogus Russian-connected accounts, that were intended to pump out propaganda via social media during last year’s Presidential election.
It’s now clear Russia attempted to influence American voters by using the power of social media, hitting on a number of hot button issues and did it over and over again.
Now That's Impressive!
My first reaction was one of shock. 126 million people in the US got these messages?
I quickly moved from shock to being impressed. Not that I’m condoning this tactic, but you have to admit, getting to 126 million people was pretty impressive. As a person who’s done his share of digital marketing to promote my own business (all above board of course), I do have to admire a group of people who manage to get their misinformation in front of that 126 million. Imagine how often I could get hired to do media training if I could get an ad in front of that many people? Do I sound like I’m drooling?
My next reaction was, this clearly shows the power of social media and in a way, demonstrates how it’s replacing traditional media as a go-to source for news. That’s serious stuff. It really doesn’t matter if what the Russians were pumping out related to last year’s US election, or what the weather’s going to like today, when that many people can have information put in front of them and perhaps be influenced by it, it’s something we all need to be concerned about.
Can other elections, including ones in Canada be influenced in the same way? It doesn’t have to be Russians doing it. It could be Canadians finding ways to get propaganda in front of us. That’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Spotting Fake News
The other clear takeaway from this is asking how many of us can actually figure out the difference between fake news and real news when we see it in social media? During the US election campaign there were stories with headlines like Hillary Goes to Jail that weren’t true of course, but were shared by millions of people, many of them Trump supporters. Many likely shared the story on Facebook and Twitter without even taking the time to read the story. It didn’t matter to them because it was “good news” that had to be shared.
While there’s definitely an obligation on the part of Facebook, Twitter, Google and others to find ways to stop this content from being posted in the first place, there’s also an obligation on everyone who reads anything that does get through to know it’s fake news and not to share it.
Preposterous stories on social media aren’t all that hard to spot. Bizarre headlines from a news source you’ve never heard of almost always mean it’s crap. Many of us have learned not to click on stories with a headline like You Won’t Believe What Farrah Fawcett Looks Like Today. Stories that said Hillary Clinton was in jail leading up to the US election last fall didn’t have any more credibility.
What's Fake and What's Real?
What the real problem is however is how stories spread through social media have as much credibility to many people, as stories from traditional media. Too many people don’t understand there’s a huge difference between reading a story on Facebook that comes from the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail and from 24online.news or 247NewsMedia.com. I have a simple policy – if I’ve never heard of the news outlet I don’t read the story. It works really well.
The problem with that is, many others don’t know the difference. It also gets a little difficult to decide whether news from sources like ABCNews.com.co or CNNews3.com is really coming from ABC or CNN, or whether they’re fake news sites. Spoiler alert – they are fake.
It’s not always easy to tell, especially when the story has been shared by somebody you know and trust. That adds a layer of credibility, but you’re assuming the other person has taken the time to make a judgement before sharing it. That doesn’t always happen. I’ve shared stories that I haven’t read, but at least I know the source of the story and have an understanding of what it’s about.
It’s difficult though and even CNN has a section at the bottom of most pages called “Paid Content”, which sure looks like click bait to me.
While it won’t necessarily be Russians trying to influence the outcome of the US election, I’m sure different forms of fake news will be with us for the foreseeable future, despite the best efforts of Facebook and other social media platforms. Crooks always find a loophole and hackers always find a way in.
Traditional media has fewer resources, which means a reduction in both the number of stories and investigative work that can be done by legitimate news organizations. Fake news has capitalized on this. Some people think if 24online.news may just have better sources than CNN or their local TV station or newspaper and that’s why they have the scoop. Hopefully these people are few and far between, but I’m likely hoping against hope judging by the number of fake news stories that were shared before the US election. Then of course there are people who don’t care the story is fake, the narrative fits into what they want to see and hear, so they’re only too happy to share it.
We still can make intelligent choices about reading and sharing content on social media. It’s now more important than ever that we do.