Opinionista Oresti Patricios 12 January 2017

Fake news, real consequences

Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once made this telling point: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Frequently repeated, any lie can gain general acceptance.

On December 11, 2016, a Twitter account called @prepaid_africa broadcast a missive on the social media service that read: “WARNING! As Plastic Rice Floods Nigeria, Use These 4 Tests To Determine If Your Rice Is Grown Or Plastic.” The tweet contained a link to The Whistler, a site that calls itself “Nigeria’s Finest News source”. The link led to an article warning people that plastic rice was flooding into Nigeria, and how to test if rice was “grown or plastic”.

The story was flooded by angry comments by readers who ranted:

Seriously this [is] bad. people do anything for money.”

Honestly. Something is seriously [sic] wrong in this part of the world.”

Now Nigerians should come back to their senses. Buy [local] rice.”

Is terrible may God help us”

On Facebook, groups like EatLocalGrown added to the storm by re-linking to an undated article on NaturalNews, stating that Chinese “Wuchang rice” is being manufactured from potato, sweet potato and plastic.

The Facebook post also received comments from outraged consumers, many of them racially charged. “Chemical warfare!!! Killing without guns or declaring war… growing other food using toxic soils, manufacturing party pills and social drugs using bits of poison to kill you over time but not immediately, harming your brains…. this is a great strategy to take revenge. They never forget…” wrote one Facebook user. “We have to be extra careful of any goods that is [sic] produced in China especially anything that is made to consume,” another wrote.

But this is not the first time that the #plasticrice story has surfaced online. My research shows that in 2015 the story raged across Twitter. @ConsumersKenya tweeted in October 2015: “Is China making rice out of digestible plastics and importing to Africa?” and linked to a short video of a supposed rice manufacturing plant.

The story was given credence by an Israeli blogger, who has some 78,000 followers, the next month. That tweet read: #PlasticRice Producers In #China Exposed for Exporting to #Africa | https://youtu.be/IQc-R6ovJG #Eating #FakeRice #LPSRice #PlasticRiceFromChina.

This tweet was retweeted by @AfricaRetweet (among others) and so the fake news had a good run before it faded. Then it resurfaced this year again.

Because of the nature of social media, most of what is published goes unmediated. While traditionally journalism subscribes to strong rigour, righteous editors and a history of fact-checking, these disciplines don’t exist on Twitter or Facebook, where fake news thrives. Given the veneer of respectability of a legitimate-looking site, it’s easy to see how the outrage can kick off a chain reaction of commentary and public finger pointing.

In the #plasticrice case, a quick look at Snopes shows that, not only is this story false, but it has been around since early 2011, when it was reported on Raw Story and The Mary Sue.

Snopes is a fact-checking site run by sceptics and academics that claims to be “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumours, and misinformation”. Its topics range from the seriously political to the downright “weird and wacky”, giving each story a rating of True, False, Mixture, Mostly False or Legend. Snopes writers follow basic journalistic fact-checking processes to establish the origins of stories that are sent in by the public.

Why is this #plasticrice story false? The story, and the various forms it has taken over the years, cannot be substantiated. References to “experts” and “investigations” are not linked to any persons or organisations — they are unsubstantiated rumours. Over time the story has resurfaced in different countries, and been reworded and re-purposed for that country (although China is the common “enemy” in all these stories). Further, in the wake of this viral fake news, several governments submitted samples of rice for laboratory testing, but each time no plastic was found.

Why does this kind of news story have such a strong viral element? Food is a major concern for most people: we want to know where it comes from, what’s in it and how fresh it is. When we eat food it is on trust – we don’t get to see how chickens are slaughtered, or how cheese is manufactured despite the transparency of the digital aid. We take the quality and integrity of brands at their word.

The #plasticrice type of fake news story undermines that trust. On Snopes there are dozens of stories and fake news items about food and its manufacture, with subjects ranging from “Ferrero Rocher Chocolates Filled with Maggots” to “Urine in Corona beer” [both of which are false claims].

Last year was the year of fake news, particularly during the Trump/Clinton presidential campaigns. Last month the Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” to be the international word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. The venerable dictionary was not only referring to the politics of the day, but also to the proliferation of clickbait and sensationalist articles flooding our newsfeeds.

The American presidential campaigns saw a surge in politically inspired fake news reports. “Donald Trump Endorsed by Pope!”, “Hillary Clinton Uses Body Double!”, “Trump to Release Secret Document That Will Destroy Obama!” — the headlines were as outrageous as they were frequent, but still they persisted, and fed into the “echo chamber” that is politics today.

Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once made this telling point: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Frequently repeated, any lie can gain general acceptance. And in the age of social media, repetition is achieved by means of the retweet and like buttons. Goebbels also said: “Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.”

In an oft-quoted research piece, military analysis and commentary site, War On The Rocks, outlines how the Russian government has been accused of being behind a concerted effort to undermine the election process in the West, lending support to conservative and right-wing groups. The report says that: “A range of activities speaks to a Russian connection – the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials, hacks surrounding voter rolls and possibly election machines, Putin’s overt praise for Trump, and the curious Kremlin connections of Trump campaign operatives Paul Manafort and Carter Page.”

The aim, this report says, was not necessarily to place Trump in the White House, but to divide the American people and make the country difficult to govern. “The ultimate objective is to diminish and tarnish American democracy. Unfortunately, that effort is going very well indeed,” the report reads.

How does fake news work, and how is it proliferated? Sites are often set up and populated by activists and ardent fans of a particular political party, but many of these fake news sites are created by opportunist webmasters whose sole aim is to make money from advertising. It’s not about real news, it’s about page views — the more outrageous the headline, the more views you get and the more money there could be made from manipulating eyeballs.

Facebook faced criticism from the public and some journalists who blamed the free flow of fake news on the site for the Republican Party victory.

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg rejected these criticisms, saying that fake news posted on Facebook had no impact on the election. NPR reports that a former Facebook employee, Maria Garcia-Martinez, who has written a book about the company called Chaos Monkeys, called Zuckerberg “disingenuous” — considering the fact that the social media site has a marketing division dedicated to persuading political advertisers that Facebook can provide influence.

Despite this apparent contradiction, Facebook told NPR that it is actively excluding fake news sites and apps. Google has also undertaken to prevent its ads from appearing on fake news sites, hopefully depriving them of that financial incentive.

The proliferation of fake news during the US election has many European politicians worried. The Guardian reports that German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has already been targeted with accusations of being either an ex-member of the East German secret police, or Hitler’s daughter. This as she seeks a fourth term in office. Again, Russia stands accused by the West of being behind these attacks, mainly because of Merkel’s hard-line stance on Ukraine.

When high-powered individuals are targeted, there is often “collateral damage”. Back in the US, the Pizzagate scandal brought untold misery to the owner and employees of Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant. It began when a Reddit user made up a story about the premises being used as a venue for paedophilia, with the story somehow tying in the Clintons and the Democratic Party campaign chair, John Podesta.

Comet Ping Pong’s owner, John Alefantis, and his employees started getting threatening phone calls, text messages, and social-media messages, while neighbouring businesses reported receiving some spillover abuse as the Pizzagate rumours continued to fester. On Sunday December 4 a young man walked into the pizzeria and threatened employees with a gun, demanding to investigate the Pizzagate conspiracy. He fired a shot, and although no-one was hurt, he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon.

A by-product of the fake news phenomenon is the idea that, instead of becoming more critical of news, people are becoming jaded and cynical. A prevailing sentiment is, if nothing can be trusted, and everything is biased, then why bother looking deeper? Why not just treat it all with a pinch of salt? The problem with this is that it undermines journalism, and truth itself. Healthy scepticism has been replaced by bland cynicism.

While fake news has trended recently in the US, it is by no means a new phenomenon. In many countries where news is heavily controlled by the government, the inherent bias in reporting, along with propaganda that drives a party line, means there is little trust in the news. Gallup reports that across the world trust in the news media is waning. In Taiwan and Ethiopia, just 14% of the citizens had confidence in the “quality and integrity of the media”, according to one Gallup poll.

Gallup also reports that within the US, public confidence in the media “reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly” dropped from 53% in 1997 to 32% in 2016. Journalism, supposedly the Fourth Estate of societal influence, is being undermined by a media that does not subscribe to journalistic ethics and standards.

Just how does one spot fake news? NPR writer Steve Inskeep provides a handy list — which is more about how to think, rather than what to think. First, he says, ask yourself: is the story so outrageous you can’t believe it? Well, there may be a good reason for that. Try Googling for confirmation reports from reputable news sites, or check on Snopes.com or Factcheck.org to see if anyone else has picked up on it. In Africa we have Africacheck.org, a site that looks specifically at Africa-related stories and issues.

Second, is the story so outrageous you do believe it? The first bias you should check is your own: fake news is propagated on all sides of the argument, so make sure you’re not being told what you want to hear.

If there’s an eye-catching headline, does the content of the story match it, or is it just bait with nothing of substance? Are there links to originators of the story? If you click on them, does the story accurately reflect the original, or has it been skewed to tell a slightly different angle?

There are eight more points in Inskeep’s article, along with some general advice for becoming a more insightful, discerning news consumer. Put these principles into practice and you will become a more critical thinker, more able to spot the fakes, and better informed as a result.

It’s easy to be fooled though. Scroll down to the bottom of any article page, for example, on the Mail & Guardian site (other than the home page), and you will be presented with a section titled “From Around the Web”, with links to clickbait stories, hosted on other sites. This section mimics in design and layout the “We Recommend” links that feature trending articles on the M&G site.

On the News 24 site, pages (other than the home page) all have a similar section, which is differentiated by the header “You Might Also Like”, or ”Promoted Stories” and a light grey background. The distinction is not obvious, however, as the fonts and layout mimic the “real” news story links on the same page. Clearly these sites are still dependent on the revenue generated by these ad aggregators.

While most reputable South African news sites still follow this practice, it’s interesting to note that many news sites in the US, like The New York Times and The Huffington Post, no longer do. These sites feature prominent, “conventional” banner ads served up by Googleads or Adnxs.

In the UK, The Telegraph has introduced “sponsored” links to stories with paid-for content. Straddling the no-man’s-land between “content marketing” and “advertorial”, these feature items like a Babcock-branded article on engineering sciences, which heavily endorses the STEM Awards, an initiative supported by Babcock, Rolls-Royce and other tech companies. While The Telegraph no longer has clickbait on its home page, it is still to be found on other [non-sponsored] pages.

In the golden age of print, newspapers would compete by offering titillating headlines on billboards, to encourage people to buy the paper on the way to or from work. The craftily-worded headline would be a major factor in getting people to read further, especially with “lighter” news stories, and this is still the case with most online news media. However, the pressure to grab eyeballs has led to deceptive practices. In a world awash with fake news who will thrive?

I’d like to think that the most influential news sources of tomorrow will be the ones with the greatest integrity. DM


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"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill