It is one of the most supercharged topics of our age. The concept of intentionally falsified material being promoted on the internet and social media seems scary and abhorrent to the vast majority of us.
For publishers and authors (of non-fiction) it would seem to threaten the very essence of what they are trying to achieve; namely provide facts and guidance that can be reliably followed by a group of interested readers, who trust the source.
No-one is sure where the term is derived from. There's a good long read by The Independent that suggests it may have been enshrined in the public consciousness as a result of the US presidential election in 2016. But of course, it has evolved over time.
It can be said that 2016 and other high-profile incidents are, of course, highly contentious and played out on an ongoing basis. Major fake news concerns (or accusations of) have focussed, thus far, on large scale manipulation of whole websites and multiple fake accounts on social media around a specific event, or set of current affairs topics. But does the overall concept have any impact on the trust that the public places in online information?
Or are fake news items extreme isolated (albeit well publicised) incidents that the average individual can well see as such?
Trust in the internet – we have been here before
It is worth pointing out that the idea of mistrusting the internet is not actually that new. And it’s not stopped growth or usage.
Around the turn of the new century the general willingness of the consumer to trust online commerce of any description was fairly low. This led to the rise of the reliable giants like eBay and Amazon. While there may seem an appreciable difference between trusting an entity you don't know well with your debit card and believing a simple story, the comfort we can take from both examples is probably twofold:
1. The internet, like most major discoveries in human history, evolves and finds a way to serve its population.
2. Big brands and reputable names tend to rise to the top, their sites seen as reliable places for readers to drop anchor in a storm.
Our example above about the early days of e-commerce is good testament. Faced with rampant fears of fraud and mishaps, the major players gathered together, and with the aid of financial and technology partners, solutions were quick to be implemented. That enabled big brands to emerge, but on the back of that, it should also be noted that via solutions like PayPal, a whole web payment revolution happened, allowing start-ups and the little guys to earn trust.
The case of fake news is more complex in a way because it doesn't affect 'the internet' as a whole (if anything indeed does now in our more complex digital ecosystem) as a technological threat per se, rather it is somewhat subjective, coming as it does from a human challenge.
How do we identify fake news?
At its most industrial, the act of circulating prejudiced material has been mostly perpetrated using social media, with what is known as 'grey' sites or individual sources putting out stories or pieces that they then make 'viral' on Facebook or Twitter, enabled by fake individual accounts. As a marketing professional for many years, I can give testimony to how hard it is to get a piece of content to hit this level of exposure, namely multiple thousands of shares. So, for authors looking at sources of information more concerned with the veracity of what they might write or read as (as we shall assume that readers of this piece are) as opposed to the risk of their own blog etc going stratospheric, that's the first indicator. Is it viral? If so, check!
There are reliable guidelines for writers and researchers to use when reading news items.
Fake News Guidelines
The American Institute of Librarians (IFLA) have issued, via an infographic, a series of practical steps for every reader to take:
- Consider the source
A look at the URL, brand and a click to where the site links to, can indicate if the information if related to any reputable individual or body.
- Check the Author
A quick search on Google or LinkedIn can often help verify that the author is a real person.
- Look at the date
Sometimes ‘topical’ pieces are re-posted. That doesn’t mean they are right.
- Think about your own bias
Often, in not agreeing with something, it is very easy for us to discount it.
- Read beyond
Sometimes the headline can be exaggerated in order to attract clicks, but body text is more balanced.
- Supporting sources
Every author would encourage this – finding alternative pieces that may shed more light on the original article.
- Is it humour?
Social media was developed to entertain as well as inform and satirical pieces are very common and professionally produced.
- Fact check
There are a number of paid anti-plagiarism sites that can actually verify pieces like essays etc, here is just one from publisher Elsevier: https://www.elsevier.com/editors/perk/plagiarism-complaints/plagiarism-detection
If you are writing your own piece and want it to be trusted, there are tips here too within this guidance, such as making sure it is named, dated and cited.
How has fake news affected information gathering as of today?
Put bluntly, it has made some people more cautious. That means there is extra pressure on writers to clearly flag opinion. Another technique online is the use of live web links to sources and of course footnotes.
However, our key principle two applies, that we talked about at the start of the piece. Writing for a trusted website, such as a highly regarded professional publisher is one of the best ways to ensure that readers believe your words. In this respect, the power of the printed and digital world is shielded from less reputable sources. That is the role publishers play – in providing professional assurance for the public they serve, and in that, fake news can in a sense actually strengthen the position of reputable publishers. So in no way should that deter us.
In the words of Susan Sontag:
'If there were no speaking or writing, there would be no truth about anything'