Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Have you ever come across a story that was completely bizarre? Did you believe it, only to later find out that it wasn’t true?
Fake news is all around us, and, if we aren’t careful, it can infiltrate our daily lives and influence our opinions.
We have put together this guide to help you understand exactly what fake news is and how it spreads.
What is fake news?
Before we get into it, let’s establish the basics.
Fake news comes in all forms and on all platforms, anything from an advertisement on a bus to a TikTok video. But, at its core, is information which is deliberately false and created to manipulate readers.
This is called disinformation, when inaccurate information is spread tactically and deliberately.
On the other hand, misinformation is when inaccurate information is published mistakenly without any purpose.
What about social media?
Social media is the ultimate platform for the creation and propagation of fake news.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even TikTok.
These are all forums for communication, for reaching and connecting with millions of people in a matter of seconds. In fact, nine out of ten UK adults are online.
Any platform that provides the means to exchange information also provides an opportunity to get political.
Yep, you heard me right. Instagram is no longer about your #OOTD, it’s getting political.
Just look at the Black Lives Matter movement, just look at the Twitter debates of our heads of state.
Social media is increasingly being used to spread ideas, debate, and shed light on the underrepresented.
These are all great, however fake news can spread just as easily as actual news.
Disinformation on Twitter, for example, uses bots to increase circulation of fake news by retweeting and quoting false stories.
Fake news on Facebook uses bots to like and share the stories for them to appear on your feed. More engagement means that those posts will be shown to more people.
What are the dangers?
Cyber propaganda is a greater danger than you might think.
It’s hard to tell the difference between what is fake and what is real, especially when it’s not too far from reality.
That’s the thing with fake news, they are stories which try to appeal to your existing beliefs, amplifying and making them more extreme.
This is why fake news is usually paired with the use of hyper-personalised data,
for example, cookies. These are used to collect information on your beliefs and interests.
The information is then used to create targeted fake news which will appeal to you.
Take the infamous 5G coronavirus narrative, where the public began to suspect that 5G mobile phone signals transmit the virus.
With suspicion and conspiracies already permeating the internet, it was easy for people to buy into this story. In the UK this led to the destruction of dozens of antennae.
The effect of fake news varies, however. Even if they didn’t fall for the whole conspiracy, it still made people question the government’s role in the spread of coronavirus. It planted doubt, which with time will only grow.
Now, don’t get me wrong, questioning those in power is fine, in fact it’s quite good!
Ditching science for a source found on Facebook is something else.
So, how exactly does fake news affect us?
Let’s get a little technical. It’s called cognitive hacking - a form of social engineering,
changing peoples’ perceptions and behaviour by exposing them to false information.
Take the pro-Brexit advert: “we send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.”
Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave (and current top advisor to the Prime Minister), stated that “all our research strongly suggests” that without this advert, Remain would have won.
One advert - one piece of fake news - was responsible for shaping beliefs and determining the outcome of a referendum.
Fake news is only getting easier to believe, and this is because we live in a world of hyper-personalisation of data and growing disillusionment among the public.
What's being done about it?
It’s all pretty morbid right? Fake news, bots, cookies, all manipulating our social media feeds and our reality.
But more measures are being taken by the UK Government and social media platforms to regulate the spread of disinformation.
This includes the establishment of the National Security Communications Unit, whose role is to “combat disinformation by state actors and others.”
Moreover, numerous reports have been published by organisations like the Digital Competition Expert Panel, who propose measures to stop the spread of fake news.
In addition, the UK Government has announced the creation of Online Harms White Paper a detailed plan “for a new system of accountability and oversight for tech companies”.
So, reports, proposals and plans have been made, now it’s all about the government following through.
On the other hand, social media has been making some strides towards change.
Facebook has produced a fact-checking initiative and partnered with Full Fact, a UK charity, to reduce the spread of fake news.
Twitter has increased tracking and suspension of bot accounts so false news cannot be propagated.
TikTok has increased regulations and removed thousands of accounts which are spreading fake news.
Is this enough? No, not even close, but it’s a good start.
How do I avoid falling for fake news?
Regulation still has a long way to go, so how can you avoid fake news in the meantime?
Be proactive, learn to avoid fake news by reading the ‘real’ news.
Disclaimer: There’s nothing wrong with reading sources of mainstream media, but if you do, be aware of their biases and make sure you read a range of sources.
Independent media outlets with no political affiliations are a good way to go, here are a few:
Remember, everything that has been written by a human being is going to be biased and reflect their own opinions, no matter how objective they try to be.
Be mindful about who you follow on social media – following tabloid news outlets will definitely increase the likeliness of coming face to face with fake news.
For practical advice, head to our Guide: How to Spot Fake News.