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Cybersecurity 16 May 2018

Fake news: the figures and solutions of a global phenomenon

New modes of communication have transformed the way news is delivered. Thanks to the Internet, access to information has never been so fast. Each minute more than 3.5 million Google searches are made, Facebook is accessed 900,000 times, and 156 million emails are sent. The compulsion to be informed every minute of the day has provoked a surge in so-called “fake news.”


Last year, the use of the term “fake news” shot up 365% thus making it Collins Dictionary's 2017 word of the year.  Among other reasons, the widespread use of the term is due to its incorporation into US political discourse and the constant problems that digital hoaxes are causing big Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

There are numerous inquiries that warn about the risks of false news. One of them is  the I Study on the impact of fake news in Spain (I Estudio sobre el impacto de las ‘fake news’ en España), conducted by Simple Lógica in collaboration with the Complutense University of Madrid's psychology of testimony research team. The report asserts that eight out of every ten Spaniards cannot distinguish between real news and fake news. In its report, Top Strategic Predictions for 2018 and Beyond the consultancy, Gartner, also asserts that by 2022 most western countries will consume more fake than real news.

Diana Owen, Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, knows very well the convergence of media, politics, and social media. In the book The Age of Perplexity. Rethinking the World We Knew, which can be downloaded for free on the web from BBVA's project OpenMind, the author stresses that the concept of fake news has evolved over time. “Initially, the term ‘fake news’ referred to news parodies and satires such as [...] Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.” However, during the US presidential electoral campaign, it took on a new meaning and “referred to fictitious stories presented as true.” the professor states.

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For Owen, this kind of information proliferates at a dizzying pace thanks to “people’s pre-existing beliefs about political leaders, parties, organizations, and the mainstream news media. [...] While some fake news stories are outright fabrications, others contain elements of truth that make them seem credible to audiences ensconced in echo chambers.”

Facebook, Twitter, and Google look for solutions

In 2017 alone, 122 web pages publishing fake news were identified. “Authors are paid—sometimes thousands of dollars—to write or record false information. They make use of social media interactions and algorithms to disseminate content to specific ideological constituencies.” Owen claims.

These fabricated stories are virally spread using bots, an automated software that poses as humans and replicates messages. “Social networking sites make it possible to build and maintain audiences of like-minded people who will trust posted content. Fake news proliferates widely through social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.”

This circumstance has caused the three technology giants, together with the search engine Bing, to launch The Trust Project. This initiative has been set up to function as a truth indicator that widens the contextual information about the news. This way, it will be easier to know who is publishing an article, what quotes and author references are incorporated, or what ethical standards underpin the story.

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"Fake news proliferates widely through social media, especially Facebook and Twitter.” Diana Owen

There are other measures that seek to put an end to false information on the Internet. Facebook was the pioneer in giving its users recommendations on how to identify fake news. Their 10 Tips to spot fake news are: be skeptical of headlines if they are in all capitals letters, contain exclamation marks or contain unbelievable claims; look closely at the URLs to be sure it’s a legitimate source; investigate the source and the formatting of the text, the photographs and the dates to be sure that the information is credible and the layout isn't awkward with careless mistakes; look at sources and other articles; and, most of all, think critically about the stories you read.

Google is also developing a tagging method called 'Fact Check'. This system collates text fragments with publications that appear in their search catalog.  Furthermore, it has established agreements with data verification companies such as Polifact and Snopes to fight against online deceptions and to improve the results of its algorithm filter.

In turn, Twitter has opted for transparency and has announced that it will reveal who is behind the political advertising published on its platform. The tool will be called Transparency Center and will follow-up on which users have been the targets of campaigns. Additionally, it will include reports on who publishes on the social network, for how long, and the content of their ads.

In recent months, fake news has turned into a global phenomenon that has had a significant impact on democratic processes and current events. According to Diana Owen, new media has significantly increased the potential for political information to reach all citizens but has also facilitated the tools that are used to spread fake news. With the resulting necessary regulation, the current era could signal a new low in the democratic imperative of a free press.