It is hard to define ‘fake news’ and it is even harder trying to deal with it and know when to trust a source. However, there are growing concerns among Facebook users that ‘fake-news’ is being ever increasingly reported and could have a damaging impact on society.
A case study – the Kremlin propaganda issue
The material that CGS Monitor publishes is partly stolen, partly deliberately muddled. Real experts are listed as the authors of works they did not write.
Mr Mefford scents a Kremlin propaganda operation. I agree. The overall effect is to portray the West as duplicitous, decadent and menacing. The language in the original material includes tell-tale mistakes typically made by Russians with good, but not perfect, English.
The CGS Monitor has forebears. In 2006 I investigated something calling itself the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDSS). This, purportedly a Washington-based think tank, promoted the cause of the unrecognised Russian-backed statelet of Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova. The ICDSS similarly purloined the names of real-world experts and misattributed reports, and presented them in a polished and superficially convincing way.
So, too, did the (now also defunct) “Tiraspol Times”, supposedly a newspaper published in the Transnistrian capital. Beyond its slick website (again, a mixture of propaganda, fakery and thievery) this had no real-world presence.
Ten years later, such sites abound: much of the material stolen from the Democratic Party by Russian hackers was published on DC Leaks, a website that used the internet’s built-in anonymity to conceal its origins. How is the ordinary internet user to know that such outfits are fake?
How to tell the real from the fake?
One test is whether a site has real-world contact details. A street address, a phone number and named individuals responsible for the content are all proof of good faith (and are legal requirements in some countries). Their absence is a sure sign of mischief.
Another is whether the internet registration data — available from a simple “who is” search — is public and real. The privacy-hungry are welcome to hide behind the cloak of anonymity, concealing their names and addresses, but they can’t then expect to carry the same credibility as those willing to stand up and be counted.
The deepest test is how a site handles mistakes. All journalism, publishing and policy wonkery involve, sadly, occasional factual errors. The question is how you deal with them. Are there apologies, corrections and clarifications? Letters of rebuttal and complaint? Good practice may vary, but if nothing of the kind is on offer, it is a sure sign of bad faith — and bad information.
RT, the Kremlin’s main English-language propaganda outlet, is not a CGS-style fake. But do a straightforward search of its site for “apology” or “correction” and you find no hits (though I did eventually unearth one apology, to the manufacturer of Tasers, published in 2012). Nor is there any easy way to complain. The BBC website has an easily found page giving details of dozens of complaints and how they are handled.
Always question what you read
The big question is how these tests should be applied. Most people get their information by clicking on links that they find on Google, Twitter and Facebook. They will often not have time to poke around on a website to establish its credibility.
So the responsibility for our information hygiene should lie first and foremost with the big technology companies. These already do a good job in steering us away from sites that may infect our computers with malware. Google’s Chrome browser, for example, flashes up a red screen reading “Phishing attack ahead” if you click on a link that may try to steal your email login and password.
Have you ever come across an incident of fake news? We would like to hear from you for an upcoming article. We would like to know how the fake news was reported and how you determined that it was in fact false information. Please get in touch with us via the contact page.