Game of Trolls: How Fake News Spurs Fringe Ideas and Threatens Online Security

Fake news

Some time ago a rumor that NASA was looking for volunteers to investigate muscle atrophy had gone viral. A lot of people packed their bags to start the job ASAP, namely to lie in bed for 70 straight days, smoke weed and get paid $18,000.

But if you google it now—what do you see?

Fake news about NASA experiment
Fake news about NASA experiment went viral

The search engine puts a Fact Check tag on the snippet with a”Pants on Fire” label next to the article. Why has Google decided to respond to such stories? And why should we pay attention to it? Well, it’s not just to make you think twice about quitting good job because of a NASA marijuana mission. Mostly, we need to pay attention to fake news in order to form good opinions and keep private data safe. Keep reading to find out more.

What is Fake News and Why Is It Everywhere?

 

Fake news is made-up “news” with no basis in fact but is presented as being factually accurate.

Usually, fake news initially appears on non-authoritative websites then spreads via social media with the help of bots and trolls. Hot topics (especially, political), eye-catching headlines, rumor-style themes, and simple ad tools, primarily on the Facebook, allow fake news to compete with legitimate news stories.

The main aims of fake news are to mislead readers to cause a formation of certain public opinion or action—mostly for political benefit as well as to drive traffic to source websites and rake in ad revenue.

 

As it turns out, fake news generators are really good at fooling people. According to Stanford, the persuasion rate of a single fake news story is equivalent to seeing 36 TV ads during the 2016 US election.  Furthermore, fake news websites, according to researchers, received 159 million visits during the November 2016 alone.
And it’s only the beginning. Fake news formats are developing.

There is software that is able to manipulate video footage of public figures to allow a second person to put words into their mouth—in real time. Similarly, there are voice impersonation techniques that create a synthesized voice capable of fooling both humans and the voice-biometric security systems used by some banks and smartphones. What is even more frightening is that this is achieved after only three to five minutes of a victim’s voice taken live or from record.

DANGER: In the “best case scenario” fake news influences your opinion and your political choice. At the worst—it can cause dangerous events, such as gunman who traveled to a Washington D.C. pizzeria because of fake story he had read online that the restaurant was harboring child sex slaves.

Who’s Making Money by Making a Fool of You?

In April, PolitiFact—one of Facebook’s and Google’s partners in its hoax-combatting program—published a list of 156 “websites where we’ve found deliberately false or fake stories”. But who’s behind them?

1. Young But Savvy Fake News Producers

Actually, fake news production and promotion isn’t a rocket science. You can simply be fooled by a teenager. For example, a Macedonian teen earned at least $60,000 during the US elections in 2016 by producing fake news aimed at stirring up both supporters and haters of Donald Trump.

Let that sink in. This news was only made to drive traffic and advertising dollars into the pocket of a kid. Furthermore, it had the direct result of limiting effective communication between people during the election.

Wait. What? How?

The fake news approach is a fairly standard approach used throughout marketing. However, where professional marketers and journalists would vet their sources to ensure due diligence, fake news authors have no obligation to check sources. The process looks like this:

  • Investigation: Look for trending topics that can be harnessed to drive traffic to websites.
  • Marketing: Add eye-catching headlines with clickbait words like “Oh my god, breaking news, wow,”. For example, the Macedonian teen’s most-read article was “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!”
  • Distribution: Publish the content on fake news websites built to look like the trusted media (NBC News, Fox News).
  • Social media power: Post stories to Facebook dozens of times a day as well as provocative online polls such as: “Should Trump Deport All Refugees?” and: “Do you consider Donald Trump the Jesus of America?”
  • Making money: Use Facebook and other social media boosting to promote fake news and Google AdSense to make money of it when the traffic rolls in.

These are not meant as best practices for you to follow. They are meant to help you identify fake stories on your newsfeed or search results.

2. Professional Marketing Teams and Agencies

There are big sharks in this game, too. Websites like 247newsmedia.com or americannews.com use different tools to attract traffic and cooperate with ad networks to make money from your views and clicks. We analyzed several major fake news websites and found that:

  • The “clickbait headline” is the real Night King in the Land of Always Fake News.
  • Pros attract traffic with content amplification plugins (WordPress mostly).
  • The main ads used for fake news are related to Trump or dating websites.
Fake news sites ads
Fake news sites monetize with ads
  • Important! Many Fake News pages have from 5 to 21 advertising and data collection trackers.
Ad trackers on fake news sites
Ad trackers on fake news sites

DANGER: If you don’t have an Ad Blocker, trackers can easily collect your data to target even more ads to you on other sites or set persistent cookies on your computer which are evasive and can’t be removed easily.

In order to not have to buy a new laptop after each deep dive into fake news, you should use an ad blocker with web protection features like StopAd. The very moment the app finds you on a harmful website, you’ll see a signal— the Web Assistant icon will change its color.

What is Being Done to Fight Fake News?

The fact-check initiative isn’t only Google’s idea. There are several organisations fighting against fake news in similar ways.

The Reporters’ Lab (Duke University) project  This is a database of global fact-checking sites. It includes 115 authoritative sources. The most prominent among them are:
It includes 115 authoritative sources. The most prominent among them are:

  • FactCheck.org (US)
  • Politifact (US)
  • Full Fact (France)
  • First Draft (UK)
FactCheck.org
FactCheck.org

To get on the list, a fact checker must be an organization without a strong political position, which regularly publishes articles that assess the accuracy of statements made by public officials.

Duke University Reporters’ Lab also developed a Share the Facts widget to help the media provide evidence for facts they are sharing. Reporters can embed the widget in articles the same way as tweets.

Share the facts widget
Share the facts widget

Fact Check (Google)—Launched in November 2016, Google’s Fact Check is meant to help readers determine whether a story is true or not. First, it was available for Google News in the US and UK, then in April 2017 Google rolled it out globally to both Google News and Google Search.

In partnership with Duke University, Google checks search results in order to mark it with a Fact Check tag. These tags tell you whether claims related to your search query are true, false, or “partly true” according to the publisher’s fact check.

Google Fact Check Tag
Google Fact Check Tag

“Disputed Content” Alert (Facebook)—The social network was one of the first to roll out its fact-checking tool. Earlier this year, Facebook experimented with tagging stories as “disputed,” but the effort hasn’t always worked to stem the flow of virality. According to a Guardian report, an alert from authority figures, like Facebook, work just about as well as mum’s “do not touch this!”  warning and can cause stories to spread faster.

"Disputed content" alert on Facebook
“Disputed content” alert on Facebook

Later Facebook created a software algorithm to flag stories that may be suspicious and send them to third-party fact checkers. Their findings may appear below the original content on the news feed.

Unfortunately, however, fact-checking tools are far from perfect when it comes to flagging fake news. Mostly, because there is such an overwhelming number of stories. For example, in the three months before the US election, 156 election-related fake news stories were published by leading websites; they got more than 38 million social media shares. Even Google and Facebook don’t have the necessary resources to check and flag every fake story immediately. So, you can only truly count on yourself.

How to Identify Fake News

To identify fake news use the guidelines from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions and the FactCheck.org editors.

Their main recommendations are:

  1. Consider the source to ensure that it’s authoritative media and be careful—sometimes fake news is hidden behind a reputable-looking address address, like abcnews.com.co, which is not the actual URL for ABC News.
  2. Read beyond the headline to understand the whole story and not to be deceived by a provocative title used only to grab your attention.
  3. Check the authors  to see if they are real and credible. Read up on their bios, social activity, and other articles.
  4. Assess supporting sources like Fact Check to ensure they support the claims.
  5. Check the date of publication to see if the story is relevant and up-to-date.
  6. Ask yourself if it could be a joke to determine if it is meant to be satire or and April Fools joke. You don’t want to be the only person in your group who thought the Onion’s coverage of the girl with an inexplicable smoker’s voice was real.
  7. Review your own biases to see if they are affecting your judgement. Let’s be honest—we’re more likely to put more stock in fact that confirms our beliefs and discount information that doesn’t. For example, do you remember a story about a fake quote from Donald Trump? A viral image claims Trump told People magazine in 1998: “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” Comedian Amy Schumer may have contributed to the revival of this fake meme. She put it on Instagram, adding at the end of a lengthy message, “Yes this quote is fake but it doesn’t matter.”
  8.  Ask experts to get confirmation from independent people with knowledge. It could be FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Washington Post Fact Checker, PolitiFact.com where you can easily find the truth.

Bias is like the flame that ignites wildfire. It fuels fake news because we don’t think as critically as we normally would and misinformation burns through our good judgement and our good sense.

How to spot fake news published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
Infographic How to spot fake news published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

Yes, the most of the fake news websites which were traffic monsters during US elections, are dead or banned by Google now. But the new army of bots is coming.

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