Cape Town – The latest allegations that fake news shared on social media changed the way people voted in the US elections has placed the topic of the internet’s Achilles heel back in focus.
The University of Southern California last week published a report that showed how “fake accounts that flood Twitter with automatically generated content … made up nearly one-fifth of the political discourse on the microblogging service this campaign season”.
“The presence of these bots can affect the dynamics of the political discussion in three tangible ways,” Emilio Ferrara, a research assistant professor at the Information Sciences Institute, wrote.
“First, influence can be redistributed across suspicious accounts that may be operated with malicious purposes. Second, the political conversation can become further polarised. Third, the spreading of misinformation and unverified information can be enhanced.”
The invasion of fake news websites and social media accounts is intensifying and on Sunday Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to defend his platform’s role in the US elections.
“After the election, many people are asking whether fake news contributed to the result, and what our responsibility is to prevent fake news from spreading,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” he said.
Censoring fake news is a tricky business
While Zuckerberg said Facebook doesn’t “want any hoaxes” shared on the platform, he said it “must proceed very carefully” in censoring fake news.
“Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated,” he said. “While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right, but some details wrong or omitted.
“An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual,” he added.
According to acclaimed rumour research website snopes.com, the rise of social media created a “predatory secondary market among online publishers seeking to profitably exploit the large reach of those networks and their huge customer bases by spreading fake news and outlandish rumours”.
Snopes reported on 2 November that “Facebook has worked at limiting the reach of hoax-purveying sites in their customers’ news feeds, inhibiting (but not eradicating) the spread of fake news stories”.
However, it said while “hoaxes and fake news are often little more than annoyances to unsuspecting readers; … sometimes circulating stories negatively affect businesses or localities by spreading false, disruptive claims that are widely believed”.
Joining forces to combat fake news
To combat fake news spreading, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, the New York Times, BuzzFeed News, the Washington Post and CNN joined the First Draft Partner Network in September.
This site, which was formed in 2015 with the backing of Alphabet's Google, is for journalists who source and report stories from social media and require ways to authenticate real from fake news.
From Trump’s victory to the state capture debate in South Africa, the war on fake news is a global issue.
Fin24 reported on Sunday that fake Twitter accounts have been used to drive an alleged “misinformation” campaign that is seen to benefit the controversial Gupta family.
This was according to a series of tweets by a local twitter user, who published his own research into allegations of an organised “Paid Twitter” campaign in South Africa.
The researcher subsequently found that about 106 fake accounts have made 17 998 tweets in the last seven days, of which only 471 were actual tweets.
Warning to not share fake news in SA
Countless politicians have died or resigned numerous times if fake news accounts are to be believed. This fake news pandemic in South Africa has seen the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) and government release statement warning internet users to keep alert.
Government Communications and Information Systems acting director-general Donald Liphoko urged South Africans to “curb the spread of news emanating from spurious websites by not sharing it”.
"It is the responsibility of all South Africans to protect the media industry and in particular the news that we receive as an audience,” said Liphoko in an October statement.
“The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act of 2002 states that Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has a mandate to shutdown websites that are not credible,” he said. “Therefore, members of the public are encouraged to approach the internet service provider directly to lodge a complaint.”
Many of the fake sites in South Africa use names and logos very similar to authentic media houses in an attempt to deceive their readers, Sanef said in a statement in September.
Sanef called on the publishers to desist from publishing false and inflammatory stories with immediate effect, as it was "grossly irresponsible".
Sanef also urged all South Africans not to perpetuate false news cycles by sharing such stories on their social media networks.
"We ask that greater attention be given to the source of news before simply retweeting or sharing."
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