In this time where terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ are being bandied about so regularly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to know what they should believe.
On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump used the term ‘fake news’ on three successive tweets, including one directed at the well-established New York Times. Democrat-favouring broadcaster CNN seems to be another media source that, in Trump’s view, is simply making news up.
Trump’s definition of ‘fake’ seems pretty fake in itself, but it’s unquestionable that there are plenty of completely fictitious stories doing the rounds. Recently, as The Independent reports, many social media users were fooled by a hoax story about a baby surviving the Grenfell Tower fire after 12 days. The graphic for the story might look plausible enough, with it being headed with the word ‘Metro’ and using the BBC’s Breaking News ident, but neither the BBC nor The Metro had anything to do with the completely untrue story.
Once people find out they have been tricked in ways like this, their immediate reaction is usually anger, followed by confusion, as they wonder what motivates people to take a disaster and use it to create fake articles.
Often, the motivation is simple – these people want a reaction. They’re trolls, and find it funny to play with people’s emotions and lead them astray. They believe the internet offers them the safety and anonymity to behave in ways they never would outside of cyberspace, even though there are countless examples of trolls being identified and confronted. In 2013, one Twitter prankster who had been insulting footballer-turned-boxer Curtis Woodhouse got a nasty but not entirely undeserved surprise when the ‘Driffield Destroyer’ (as Woodhouse is nicknamed) tracked him down and turned up on his street.
Sometimes, fake news is created for political means, as a recent Oxford University study identified. It might not necessarily be anyone directly affiliated with a political party creating it, but someone who has a particular point of view and wants to popularise it by creating convenient lies. Examples of this could include the false claim that Sweden has banned Christmas lights to avoid offending Muslims, which presumably is a story dreamed up by somebody with an anti-Muslim or anti-political correctness agenda.
Similarly, a 2014 meme showing a sparsely populated House of Commons debating matters like war, education and employment next to a jam-packed assembly for a debate on MPs pay turned out to be fake, but why was it created? I’m guessing someone just doesn’t like MPs very much.
Perhaps the most sinister reason why fake news is created is to make money. If people can tug heartstrings hard enough to get people to click through to their site and share articles, it doesn’t matter to content creators with no morals whether the stories are true or not. The traffic, interaction and engagement this sort of drivel creates leads to increased exposure and the possibility of drawing in advertisers.
Trump is demonstrating that we need to be careful how we use the term ‘fake news’. There’s a big difference between news presented with an editorial stance we don’t like, and stories that are completely fabricated for ulterior motives. Social media users have to bear some individual responsibility for what they share, but it’s also down to the likes of Facebook and Twitter to make a stand. I would like to see them team up with likes of Full Fact and even myth-busting sites like Snopes so that definite fake news is highlighted. This could perhaps be done with a note next to dubious stories using words like “this story may not be accurate” and directing to a fact-checking site.