Providing relevant information has been remarkably important since the early ages. From the early days, information has spread through the press and the means of dissemination have always been progressing. Nowadays, information is vastly disseminated by the means of television and, most prominently, through the Internet. Social media have become our primary source for receiving daily news. Undoubtedly, no one can conceivably call into question the significant influence of social media in forming our everyday opinions. With the widespread use of social media comes great responsibility and, unfortunately, nowadays we are witnessing tremendous misuse of social media, embodied in the form of dissemination of so-called fake news. Today, anybody can be a content publisher with no regard for credibility of information or its sources and generated disinformation can be absorbed by people all around the world, resulting in fake stories that can subsequently have negative repercussions. The level of schism and untrustworthiness that has been emitted by this kind of news is immense and is considered to be problematic on a global scale. In this article, I will elucidate the term fake news, explain the most popular methods of spreading fake news and, most importantly, I will argue why the fake news phenomenon is regarded as a threat to our contemporary society.
To commence, I would like to briefly shed light on what fake news actually is. This phenomenon is not unfamiliar in the journalistic community. The very first notion of fake news began in the mid–1890s, under the term “yellow journalism” and was characterized by presenting news that had very little to no appropriated or researched information incorporated into news outlets. Nowadays, fake news is, according to the BBC (2018), constructed to disseminate confusion and belie real facts with lies, hoaxes and conspiracies. Fake news is often forwarded on authentic looking websites and sensationalist media pages. The stories tend to be controversial so people will share them more, especially when they confirm actual beliefs. They might be mixed with real news to enhance their legitimacy (BBC 2018). Disinformation is designed to intentionally legitimize our emotions, thus creating the false consciousness of being correct. This is an especially dangerous psychological circumstance because it causes people to act irrationally, without giving any additional thought to their actions. Now, imagine an aggregate of people convinced by fake news that they are correct about the idea of homosexuals being dangerous sexual deviants who may endanger someone’s children. The false consciousness of being correct would legitimize their already negative sensibilities and, in an extreme hypothetical case, these people would be capable to attack homosexuals, being purely motivated by a false assumption generated by fake news.
Furthermore, with regard to the methods of dissemination of fake news, the BBC (2018) states that fake news can be augmented by bots, automated accounts tailored to look like actual individuals. There can be massive amounts of bots commenting on and reposting stories to make it look like the stories are going viral. They can then gain credibility when shared by organizations or celebrities (BBC 2018), Another tricky field includes private messages, in which fake news wanders without public scrutiny. These kinds of messages are almost impossible to scrutinize, not without a very serious breach of privacy, which might subsequently turn into massive tort lawsuits.
One study reported that false information on Twitter is typically retweeted by many more people, and far more rapidly, than true information, especially when the topic is politics (Vosoughi et al. 2018). This fact is alarming considering how fast is our technology progressing. Fake news could become a new weapon in post–modern political battles. According to The Washington Post (Kent 2018), if technology continues to progress at such a high-paced tempo, we may become witnesses of videos that show actions that never really happened. Novel fake videos will be capable to imitate the original voices of concrete political figures, resulting in distortion of what that person actually said. If the videos advance even further, we may witness a complete distortion of the truth by combining several videos together into one, thus creating a completely new video. This scenario might have catastrophic political consequences: “At a political level, deftly constructed video could show a political leader advocating for the reverse of what she stands for, or portray bloody events that never happened. It could trigger riots, swing elections, and sow panic and despair” (Kent 2018)
Today, with continually progressing technological advances, fake news is becoming weaponized. The dangers of fake news are not necessarily embedded only in the political sphere. This news can have an undesirable impact also within the individual dimension. For example, a video of a child being kidnapped went viral in India. It was an elaborate online hoax that created a storm of fear about roving child-kidnapping gangs. As rumors spread, many people who were allegedly considered child abductors would be killed by angry mobs. The original footage was lifted from a safety video in Pakistan, warning people of the dangers of child abduction. The original ending was that the kidnapped child had been returned to the place where s/he was abducted but someone had cut that part out. Police had to hit the streets telling people to stop sharing the video but the damage had already been done.
The fake news phenomenon is becoming increasingly dangerous and can be considered as immediate threat to our contemporary society. Means of fake news proliferation are becoming progressively sophisticated. It is a question in the very near future that we will not be able to recognize real news from fake news. Fake news combines the persuasion of digital technology with the power of social media. Nowadays, almost anybody can create very compelling fake content, potentially leading to an information apocalypse. Imagine a video of Trump saying he has launched nuclear weapons against North Korea and before anybody figures out it is fake, we are on the edge of a global nuclear meltdown. I think that in this manner it would be wise to ask the direct question of how we fight the problem of fake news. According to Carolyn Jones, writing for EdSource (2017), a long-run approach would be to improve individual evaluation of the quality of information sources through education. There has been a proliferation of efforts to inject training of critical-information skills into primary and secondary schools (Jones 2017). The key to success is, first of all, to raise the level of education and the quality of education itself. It is also necessary to increase the digital literacy of individuals related to searching, processing, sorting and sharing information through news media and information technologies. In addition, it is crucial to raise general media literacy and to improve the social status of media education.
Pavel Janči is a Master’s degree student of Sociology
Article was written in Writing Sociology class
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 2018. “What is fake news and how can you identify it?” November 12. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-46149888/what-is-fake-news-and-how-can-you-identify-it).
Jones, Carolyn. 2017. “Bill would help California schools teach about ‘fake news,’ media literacy.” EdSource, May 24. Retrieved March 20, 2019 (https://edsource.org/2017/bill-would-help-california-schoolsteach-about-fake-news-media-literacy/582363).
Kent, Thomas. 2018. “Fake news is about to get so much more dangerous.” The Washington Post, September 6. Retrieved March 20, 2019 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fake-news-is-about-to-get-so-much-more-dangerous/2018/09/06/3d7e4194-a1a6-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html?utm_term=.ffff2de6513d).
Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. 2018. “The spread of true and false news online.” Science 359(6380): 1146-1151. Retrieved March 20, 2019 (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146).