The Daunting Challenges of Fake News

whatsapp2Social media platforms, and especially Facebook, are finely-tuned, efficient networks for amplifying and distributing emotion. Facebook’s success is directly tied to its ability to have users hit a “like” button, and have that activity broadcast across their network.

Unfortunately these same characteristics make social networks the perfect medium for spreading rumors and false information. It is easy for me to trust and be incensed by something a colleague sent me — accurate or not — and amplify that across the network.

This challenge of fake news will be even greater in regions first acquiring the internet for several reasons:

  • users place too much trust in technology
  • users haven’t developed the media skills to separate true and false
  • there are relatively few trusted local news outlets to contradict rumor
  • much of the information flows in private networks

The last item may be the most daunting. Many rural areas are not turning first to Facebook, but instead to WhatsApp (owned by Facebook). Unlike Facebook, WhatsApp supports only private, encrypted communications. It is really impossible for anyone to monitor (or flag false rumors) until news spills into other networks. This can lead to tragic consequences — such as the the murders in rural India caused by false WhatsApp rumors.

WhatsApp is taking some modest steps to address these problems, such as indicating more clearly which content is being forwarded from other sources. But since it is many times harder to dispel a rumor than to create one, this is a problem that is likely to worsen with the expansion of the internet.

Addendum: A new study from MIT demonstrates that on Twitter, false news travels faster and farther than real news. Researchers reviewed 4.5 million tweets about 126,000 stories.  Fake news travelled six times faster than real news, was retweeted broadly about 10 times as often, and reached much larger final audiences.

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