The rise and rise of fake news

The deliberate making up of news stories to fool or entertain is nothing new. But the arrival of social media has meant real and fictional stories are now presented in such a similar way that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the two apart.

While the internet has enabled the sharing of knowledge in ways that previous generations could only have dreamed of, it has also provided ample proof of Winston Churchill’s line that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.

So with research suggesting an increasing proportion of US adults are getting their news from social media, it’s likely that more and more of us are seeing – and believing – information that is not just inaccurate, but totally made up.

There are hundreds of fake news websites out there, from those which deliberately imitate real life newspapers, to government propaganda sites, and even those which tread the line between satire and plain misinformation.

But how much should be worried by fooled by sites that set out to get fake news stories up and running?

Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, one of the largest fact checking websites which fights online misinformation, believes that while individual fake news stories may not be dangerous their potential to cause damage becomes more powerful over time and when considered in the aggregate.

“There’s a lot of confirmation bias,” she says. “A lot of people want proof that their world view is the accurate and appropriate one.”

And that idea of reinforcing people’s beliefs and falsely confirming their prejudices is something that Allen Montgomery says his fake news site actively tries to exploit.

“We’re constantly trying to tune into feelings that we think that people already have or want to have,” he says.

“Recently we did a story about Hillary Clinton being fed the answers prior to the debate. There was already some low level chatter about that having happened – it was all fake – but that sort of headline gets into the right wing bubble and they run with it.”

Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman, who heads a team looking into the effects of fake news, explains just how easily fake news can end up being reported as true by the mainstream media.

“A fake news website might publish a hoax, then because it’s getting social attention another site might pick it up, write that story as though it’s true and may not link back to the original fake news website,” Silverman says.

“From there it’s a chain reaction until at some point a journalist at a largely credible outlet might see it and quickly write something up, because many journalists are trying to write as many stories as possible and write stories that get traffic and social attention. The incentive is towards producing more and checking less.”

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