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This Week in Tech

Exploring the Fake News problem

Last year I repeatedly wrote about fake news - largely quoting articles that revealed the latest bit of fake news - or which provided tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of fake news. Towards the end of the year I reduced the mentions of fake news in the blog. This was more to avoid ‘ranting’ than because the amount of fake news decreased in any way.

In the meanwhile I have spent quite some time thinking about why the problem of fake news exists. There are, of course, multiple factors that contribute to the phenomenon of fake news. Some of my conclusions are explained a little further into this post.

As teachers you don’t really have time for long, philosophical arguments and discussions of the topic. It is, however covered in the syllabus under the section relating to validating information / web sites. When teaching about fake news the core of the matter boils down to:

  • ensuring that your learners are aware of the concept - and provide examples of fake news for them to look at (of specific relevance to SA would be the Sunday Times articles about the SARS ‘Rogue Unit’ or even any recent gossip / bullying on social media at your school).
  • providing your learners with some reasons why pleople would want to spread fake news (private agendas, protection of self interest, political partisanship, etc.)
  • discuss the effect / results of fake news (ruined reputations, lost jobs, corruption of vital institutions (SARS again) and even changing the result of an election (America 2016)
  • explaining how people get fooled by fake news - even experts and professionals can be fooled at first glance
  • supplying tips and tricks that your learners can use to identify fake news so that they are not fooled by it.
It is possible to make the concept more real to them by equating it with gossip - and the effect it has on their own lives / the lives of their friends. Except, of course, that the scale of fake news is much larger and the consequences that much more dire.

All the aspects of fake news are covered in detail in the Data Communications section of my Grd 10 IT Theory textbook (find it at learningopportunities.co.za - a year’s subscription is only R100).

What I really want to do in this blog is explore the WHY of fake news.

NB: The usual list of links and news comes after this longer than normal piece. Just scroll down to get to them if you want to skip this.

ALSO: This is my personal take on the issue. I am sharing it and inviting comment, not trying to be arrogant (assuming I have all the answers) or trying to teach you something that you may already know. If you don't like it or feel I am patronising you, then just jump to the end - it's not worth raising your blood pressure over!

Fake news is nothing new. It has been around in many forms throughout the milleni. Its sudden elevation to a problem that should be of grave concern to any thinking person is due to its scale, the quickness and ease with which it spreads through electronic media - and the inclination for large numbers of people to accept it as true without question (and even to defend it when it is questioned).

Unquestioning acceptance of (and belief in) fake news are core issues.

Let's go back in time to before the internet...

‘Cost of entry’ not only made it difficult for anyone to publish their version of the news, it also limited the number of publications available. News was available, but not in the form of the information deluge that we have to deal with today.

Though news sources were never entirely impartial, it was often much easier in the past to detect the bias and editorial commitment to truth of a publication - and evaluate the likelihood of it publishing untrue, fake or unverified content. Publications had clear reputations. Some were respected. Some not. In apartheid South Africa you were far more likely to find accurate news in ‘The Weekly Mail and Guardian’ than in the government controlled (at the time) ‘Citizen’. The ‘New York Times’ was clearly much more reliable than ‘The National Enquirer’.

Just the source of the news helped give you an idea of whether it was likey to be fake or not.

On top of that, publications checked the veracity of their content to satisfy the requirements of the armies of editors and lawyers that vetted any controversial content for fear of legal consequences or censure from professional bodies.

The publishing revolution.

Then along came the internet. And with it came blogs and social networks and video sharing sites and micro-blogging and photo sharing and instant messaging - and so on. Publishing your message suddenly has no cost. Reaching an audience of millions has no cost. Suddenly publishing is available to anyone with a computer and the skills to put up a web site. Media is democratised. We have a brave new world where information is 'free' and no rich media moguls or governments can block uncomfortable truths from coming out.

On top of this there is money to be made - especially if your message is new and short and controversial enough to get millions of eyeballs to look at it. Millions of eyeballs = $$$ in advertising. And anyone can do it. Even those for whom the truth is unimportant as long as they make $$$. Even those who don't care about truth or money but have some other goal to achieve (such as discrediting a person or making sure someone gets elected).

Now we have news that anyone can publish whether they researched it or made it up. They can publish it and reach audiences of millions around the world. So the door to fake news opens up.

What happened to fact checking?

Most of those eyeballs that earn the advertising dollars will only look at something once.

The first with the news gets the advertising bucks.

Suddenly speed to publication is more important than accuracy. So checking facts before publishing goes out the window (too slow: your post won't be first, the eyeballs and advertising dollars will go to the first one to publish). It's easier to apologise and retract afterwards - even though people will only remember the original, sensational, incorrect content.

So we have news that is not checked before it is published. The door to fake news is opened even wider.

The insulation of the Filter Bubble.

The burgeoning of sites gives us too many choices, too many sources of information.

So we tend to settle on one source - preferably a source that gives us our news the way we like it. And we like it all in one place, served up on a platter. Lots of people should use this news source - because after all, lots of people can't be wrong / fooled...

Our news source should preferably only deal with the topics we want to read about.

What we end up with is a news source that caters to our prejudices and preferences and which keeps us in a nice, cozy filter-bubble - and so obviates the need to think and engage with anything that disturbs our world view.

Social media companies know this - and also know that conflicting content that requires some effort to resolve is off-putting for the average reader. Anything off-putting is likely to reduce the user's screen time (and so the money that the social media site makes). So they filter the content. They only let the user see what they expect and like to see (whether it is true or fake). A user that is not conflicted or unhappy will keep clicking and scrolling for longer - and earn them more money.

It's hard to think that something might be fake if it is the only version of the news that you see - and if you only see the same news repeated across multiple stories without contradicting articles. So the filter bubble that these sites create make it more difficult to detect fake news (even Google is guilty of this - it generates its own filter bubble so you are likely to see only search results that match up with the content of the news that you read).

Now people are only reading news that matches what they think they know to be right. Their ability to identify fake news decreases.

The problem of collation.

Often the simplest way out is to get our news on social media.

This way our news is all in one place and many millions share the same news source, so the news must be correct, mustn't it?

The internet floods us with information - too much information. From all types of sources. Good or bad. True or fake. Real or rumour / gossip / propaganda.

Social Media news at least seems to control this flood - but getting all the news through social media has another effect. To us, the end users, all the news comes from the same place - the social media site.

It's hard to use the tool of 'checking the quality of the source publication' when all the news seems to come from the same source (most people when asked where they get their news will answer 'Facebook' - not publication xyz through Facebook). It seems as if even recognising and acknowledging the real source of the content is too much effort for us.

The melding of all news sources into one means that media reputation (i.e. 'you can't believe that - everyone knows that publication X is junk') no longer applies. The true is published next to the fake in the same place. It's so much easier just to believe it all than to try to figure out the difference.

Fast and Furious

The tsunami of information and 'news' on social media has another consequence. We are overcome with a sense that information is a huge, daunting, unclimbable mountain that we shy away from. Our lives are too busy to 'read all that shit'... So we want our information doled out in bite sized, pre-digested, simplified chunks - which we only skim read in any case.This skimming forces headline creators to try all sorts of tricks to grab our attention - even if it means bending the truth or completely fabricating the story.

Only the sensational gets our attention.

And it is the sensational that gets shared.

We are far more likely to 'share' something short and sensational (or 'cute' or 'inspirational') than a meaty, in-depth discussion of any topic at all.

And the more sensational a news item is, the faster we are likely to share it - with as many people as possible. We also want to be 'first' with our shares. Often we share fake news without even stopping for a moment to think about whether it is true or not.

So it is that fake news spreads quicker than a measles epidemic in an anti-vaccination community.

Now we have news that spreads so fast and is shared by so many people that it becomes difficult to think that it might be fake.

Lazy / Partisan readers

Many people are too lazy to check the accuracy of news - that would mean reading multiple sources, comparing the differing facts, thinking - and then forming your own view. It's just much easier to accept what you've read as 'true' - after all it was in the news.

The last piece of the puzzle ties in with the filter bubble mentioned earlier. Partisanship means that people cling to ideas (political and otherwise) that form part of their identity. They are unwilling to question news that affirms their ideas - and quick to reject any news that conflicts with their ideas.

The issue for them is not the accuracy of the news but their own perception of themselves and their view of reality. They will accept and defend any fake news that confirms them. They will reject any true news that threatens or contradicts them. The truth does not matter. Only what they believe in.

Often these are the people creating the fake news in the first place - for consumption by people who share their world view.

For them the truth will never matter.

Weekly news summary:

Fake news

The following links provided courtesy of Claire Smuts

  • How Russian trolls lie their way to the top of your news feed (C-Net)
https://www.cnet.com/news/facebook-twitter-social-media-russian-troll-politics-chaos/



  • Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests (New York Times)
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/world/europe/facebook-refugee-attacks-germany.html



  • Fake news travels much further and faster than real news on social media, study finds (The Independent)
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/fake-news-twitter-spreads-further-faster-real-stories-ret...



  • Next year's EU election at risk of Russian meddling (EU Observer)
https://euobserver.com/foreign/140598



  • Next Canadian federal election will be target for Russian meddling: Sajjan (CBC)
https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/election-2019-meddling-russia-sajjan-1.4910839



  • Corruption, fake news, and WhatsApp: how Bolsonaro won Brazil (Vox)
https://www.vox.com/world/2018/10/29/18025066/bolsonaro-brazil-elections-voters-q-a

Hardware / Software

Malware

Computer Science

Privacy

Gaming

Internet

That's it for this week.

Happy teaching!

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