Illustration by Priya Garg
Fiadh Melina explores where fake news comes from and what individuals and companies such as Google can do to combat it.
In recent years, both the American elections and Brexit sent shockwaves through the world. Thanks in part to eight years of Obama, and large steps forward for the LGBT+ community, progressivism, and equality has become the norm for what is the supposed majority of us. Thanks to the spread of fake news however, we have seen the rise of Trump, and Britain voting to leave the EU, as well as a resurgence of the right, and an increasingly polarised politics, both at home and abroad.
Should we find it so surprising? After speaking with Dr. Samuel Brazys, Associate Professor in UCD School of Politics and International Relations, a very valid point came to light: fake news manages to persist and circulate largely thanks to the existence of echo chambers. “On social media you by and large tend to be friends with people who have similar views to you so you see a lot of messages that reinforce your prior beliefs.”
“Hilary Clinton likes to throttle baby seals.”
Defining fake news as “a wide spectrum, from news stories that have some basis in fact that are twisted, to complete fabrication that have entered into the news cycle and political cycle,” Brazys says that as fake news stories are spread, they “reinforce beliefs you already had.” Looking at voting in the USA 2016 elections, Brazys explains that a fake news story could be circulated about Hilary Clinton, but “if you already dislike Hilary Clinton and something comes out that says ‘Hilary Clinton likes to throttle baby seals’ you may already be predisposed to believing that kind of story.”Exactly how much influence fake news has on changing the minds of the public is unclear, and is a current area of research for political scientists: “What we really want to know is how many minds are changed by fake news.”
Aiding the spread of fake news is the abundance of misinformation in the media and how it becomes more prevalent thanks to the influence of Internet sites such as Google and Facebook. Social and traditional media outlets were at a stalemate of true and false information in the lead up to Trump and Brexit votes. According to a study done by King’s College London, an incredible 4,838 articles published across twenty news outlets during the EU referendum campaign focused on immigration alone, 99 of which splayed the front pages. The majority were negative, misinformed, and gave classic signs of being ‘clickbait.’ It’s become such a regurgitated term to the point that many don’t notice or understand what clickbait is anymore. It has become normal to have a flashy title that will entice you to click on or pick up a copy.
Where do search engines come into this? After speaking with Beth*, a Google Employee, it became clear that Google, like a dictionary, is simply a search engine where individuals can find information relative to their needs. How does a Google search work and how does Google choose the best ads suited to you? Firstly, the company has access to your Gmail account and will use prompts from this to sift the best quality ads. Secondly, Google uses an algorithm in search that will use a combination of location, company word auctions, and search history. “Say we’re both two companies and we’re set up the exact same, okay? We both sell sweets, we both, live in Dingle…and we then bid on the word say ‘sweets,’ and if you search sweets, and it comes up, it’s the person that bids the highest that will win.”
Social and traditional media outlets were at a stalemate of true and false information in the lead up to Trump and Brexit votes.
Clickbait titles then, will use the mechanism in place to use key words that will appear higher in searches. Is Google to blame for this or again are we brought back to each individual’s responsibility to inform themselves? Beth believes in order for Google to avoid falling prey to the advantages that were taken by spammers in the time of the Trump election, it should develop more sophisticated monitoring algorithms whilst also keeping the integrity of basic user privacy.
“All Google search engine is doing, is making available all the content that’s out there. It’s not actually…trying to influence you…it’s a very liberal and diverse company,” says Beth.
To avoid falling into the trap of believing fake news, Brazys advises people to “question what you see, try to find the authenticity” and suggests that “if it sounds surprising you should be probably check to see if you can find the same news from more than one place.”
Personal responsibility seems to be the strongest safeguard against being influenced by misinformation and fake news. Based on how much misinformation is out there, and how successful it has been, it would be naïve to assume there will be a drop in fake news in the future. Therefore, learning how to assess information, and cross-checking sources would appear to be the most necessary steps if we are to be well-informed.
*Not real name.