Fake News as big business
Fake news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it; a commodity with active demand and supply.
In those days at The Guardian Newspapers, Rutam House, if reporter was lucky to have his story on the front page of the paper, he perhaps had to look well to be sure it was his, even with his by-line emboldened on it.
It would have survived rigorous scrutiny in the news chain and been rewritten to perfection. Then, the head of his desk would have checked it to be sure of what he had, and defended it at the editorial meeting. The story had to survive the scrutiny of the news editor and his team, a strong re-write desk that would have polished it with good English and had it conform to a house style; and then a final check by the editor of the paper.
There was little room for error, and when one was made, it was speedily apologized for in the next edition. These days, some publications, mostly those under today’s subject, don’t bother about errors or falsehood; they just move on as if they are unnoticed, or don’t bloody care.
Although the process above may have been abridged, the practice is the culture in reputable newspapers (emphasis mine).
But today, thanks to the internet and social media, all what is required to publish news stories is a website or a phone. And to the horror of decency and in disregard for standards, it has become a business to churn out fake news for money or to attack people. That does not condemn all online newspapers. There are some great ones; some very professional ones I visit to confirm breaking news. If they haven’t reported a story that breaks during the day, they have not gone to sleep. They are checking.
A CEO under attack
Last year, the CEO of a reputable company in Nigeria called to complain about the publisher of an online paper who was requesting for N15 million to take down a false story meant to embarrass the company and a top government official.
It was a delicate matter. The paper was not a popular one and of course not many people would have seen the story, but leaving it on the Internet made it a possible newsfeed for other unprofessional papers. A rejoinder in reputable newspapers to counter the story was also not an option because of its tendency to draw undue attention of a wider readership to falsehood and also arming the enemy with weapons. Rejoinders are sometimes counter-productive. In the case in point, lawyers, ready to head for the court, had to be called in. But it was even not the very best option, considering how such cases drag in courts.
Fake news is not only a scourge, it is big business. In the end, the CEO was disappointed to hear that for now there is no cure for the scourge of fake news.
The President Buhari experience
Not long after that Nigerians were treated to a greater dimension of Fake News with repeated reports of the death of President Muhammadu Buhari, who was on medical vacation in London.
Stories of “his death” came in through various platforms with stubborn persistence. Like a room with a leaking roof during rainstorm, the floor was always wet no matter how fast the water was scooped out.
There were stories like: “Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has died in a London Hospital where he was receiving medical care, the Nigerian Mission in UK has confirmed.
According to the information released by Nigerian Embassy, Buhari left the West African country for a vacation in the U.K in order to undergo medical checks.
One of the president aids who accompanied him to the U.K and spoke on condition of anonymity said the president has been battling an “TERRIBLE DISEASE” for a long time now.”
And: “There are strong indications that Nigeria president Muhammadu Buhari is dead, according to Metro.co.uk Buhari died London Hospital where he was receiving medical care, the Nigerian Mission in UK has said”
As flawed as the reports were, and despite the evidence tracing them to Arizona in the US, they kept on winning more believers. The WhatsAPP reports which came with pictures were more frightening. They strived to counter photo news of the President and his visitors in London.
Nothing proved the falsehood of the fake news better than the return of President Buhari. But trust the fake news editor/reporter to hide or walk away with impunity.
What is fake news
According to by Wikipedia fake news is as “a type of hoax or deliberate spread of false information, be it via the traditional print or broadcasting news media or via Internet-based social media. To qualify as fake news, a story has to be written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. As such, intentionally misleading and deceptive fake news is different from obviously satirical or parody articles or papers.
Fake news is active in many more countries than Nigeria. In the United States it played a major role in the victory of Donald Trump. According to reports Pro-Donald Trump fake news dominated Facebook in the months leading up to the presidential election in early November. An analysis by Buzzfeed found that fake news stories related to the election did better on Facebook than real news stories from August through Election Day.
According to a compilation by Wikipedia, fakes news, a major threat to democracy, has raised concern in many countries. For example:
Australia: A well-known case of fabricated news in Australia happened in 2009 when a report Deception Detection Across Australian Populations of a “Levitt Institute” was widely cited on the news websites all over the country, claiming that Sydney the most naive city, despite the fact that the report itself contained a cue: amidst the mathematical gibberish, there was a statement: “These results were completely made up to be fictitious material through a process of modified truth and credibility nodes.”.
Brazil: Brazil faced increasing influence from fake news after the 2014 re-election of President Dilma Roussef and her subsequent impeachment in August 2016. BBC Brazil reported in April 2016 that in the week surrounding one of the impeachment votes, three out of the five most-shared articles on Facebook in Brazil were fake.
France: France saw an uptick in amounts of disinformation and propaganda, primarily in the midst of election cycles.
Germany: Chancellor Merkel lamented the problem of fraudulent news reports in a November 2016 speech, days after announcing her campaign for a fourth term as leader of her country. In a speech to the German parliament, Merkel was critical of such fake sites, saying they harmed political discussion.
Founder of the World Wide Web laments
Fake news has even got the founder of the World Wide Web complaining. Sir Tim Berners-Lee has expressed concern over three challenges faced by the web, including fake news.
Mr. Berners-Lee, in a statement obtained by the News Agency of Nigeria, listed the issues as loss of control of privacy, misinformation or fake news and transparency in political advertising online.
The inventor, who noted that the web had lived up to its vision in spite of the recurring battle to keep the web open, said that the challenges needed to be addressed quickly.
“Over the past 12 months, I have become increasingly worried about three new trends. I believe we must tackle them, in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity,” he said.
Fake news is business
Fake news is business. Laurie Penny an author and contributing editor to the New Statesmannotes: “Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that fake news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising.
Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff.”
In many countries, is often used to blackmail for money or purely for character assassination, attract adverts directly and indirectly, or to draw attention to a new publication.
The demand for fake news
The business model of fake news thrives on the demand for it. The consumer of fake news is a major cause of the proliferation. The following reasons have been identified by psychologists and media experts.
Gullibility: Many poorly educated people take what they read in newspapers and online media as gospel truth they are proud to spread. Studies show that online news readers don’t seem to really care about the importance of journalistic sourcing – what people in the academia call “professional gate-keeping.” This attitude, together with the difficulty of discerning online news sources, is at the root of why so many believe fake news.
Loss of humanity: Fake news thrives because in a world that is increasingly losing its humanity, people want false news about others to be true. In the case of President Buhari, there were of course some people who lost out in many ways with his emergence as President, and people who wish to be saved from the ant-corruption war.
Implicit Bias: Psychologists explain that there is the tendency for humans to group people into categories. We are inclined to trust people we consider members of our own group more than those of a different group. The word implicit indicates that it is a bias that influences us without our knowing it.
Confirmation Bias: Experts describe confirmation bias as our tendency to seek out information that confirms what we already think or want to be true; and actually turn a blind eye to facts that contradict our beliefs.
Lethal Combination: According to Dr David Braucher when implicit biases and confirmation biases work together, their potential to lead us astray increases exponentially. “As our implicit bias leads us to trust and view more positively those of our own group, we become more insulated, only hearing from people of our own group. As those of our own group share our beliefs, they share “facts” that confirm our beliefs. It is a feedback loop, and we end up living in a bubble,” he explains.
Lack of critical thinking: Forbes’ contributor Jordan Shapiro suggests that the real problem is not falsehoods or inaccuracies, but rather that everything about the popular landscape of digital media currently encourages us to see the world the way we want it to be. But many people lack the right education for critical thinking.