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Holborn Assets Reviews – An Antidote to Fake News

26th April 2017

An antidote to “fake news” was earlier this year proposed by a professor from Cambridge University. See below for the full story.

But fake news continues to be news in itself, with even the UK Government taking an interest: a UK select committee inquiry is set in September 2017 to publish a report on fake news.

Fake News - fake news warning sign, a yellow warning sign with text fake news on a keyboard

“Fake news” means news that is not necessarily true. We’ve seen a lot of it recently across many sectors, including personal finance, where it is often scam stories that stand out. Here at Holborn Assets, scams and stories about scams are regularly evaluated to see a) if there is any truth to them and b) what can be learnt in terms of client security if there is any truth to them.

But let’s be clear: we, as a society, have always had fake news. And the desire to stand out, regardless of the truth, has always been at the bottom of it. Back in 2004, ex-UK Government Director of Strategy Geoff Mulgan observed that “the public have systematically distorted views of many important facts and issues” as a result of “the competitiveness of the modern news media economy” which “has led to some well-documented distortions to news values: poor ethics, inaccuracy, abuse of power.”

That was before the internet. And the reason the whole idea of fake news is suddenly in the public eye right now is down to the internet. The web has supercharged fake news:

Because the web is interconnected, some stories spread instantly

In a submission to a select committee inquiry last week, The Guardian said fake news was “a symptom of a bigger phenomenon associated with … networked global digital platforms which offer a scale of instant viral interconnectivity unparalleled in the history of communication.”

Because some stories spread instantly, some get too big to challenge

Often one story dominates a sector or topic on the internet. Why? It’s down to the way in which social media platforms work. The Guardian reported last week to the select committee looking into fake news that, “successive changes to platform algorithms have tended to favour viral content shared by friends and family, rather than high quality journalism.”

Often stories get so big, so quickly, that search results seem to have no room for any other related information other than the original viral story; and who’s interested in anything else, anyway? At the time of writing, it’s just been the United Airlines “seat-bashing episode” that has dominated. There’s plenty of mockery and condemnation of United Airlines springing up in comic memes and other web media – but little coming up in their defence. This a problem, because it means there is no balance.

Because the web is unregulated, some stories are not true

In the case of United Airlines, the story of a man being forcibly removed from his seat is agreed to be true. There was video footage (and then more footage) and the footage was agreed not to be fake. The same cannot be said about many stories on the internet. And often stories begin with a kernel of truth but grow into something false, with this process of gradual re-interpretation always seeming to focus on bad stories, not good stories. There is no regulatory body on the internet to vet stories, so anything goes – across many shades of grey in terms of accuracy.

So is censorship the answer?

Arguably, the only alternative to fake news boils down to censorship. How so? Well maybe the only way to check fake news would be to have it submitted to a central authority, who would then edit out/censor inaccuracy and approve for publication. This would be a form of censorship; censorship is another word for editing. News in print, for example, is edited so that it is accurate; inaccuracy is, in other words, censored.

But who would want censorship on the internet – even if it were logistically possible to have all content fact-checked by a central body before going live? The internet could have turned out very differently, and its freedom from any form of central censoring authority is a real strength – so let’s not volunteer for a fact-checking authority.

There’s other ways around the problem:

Cambridge Professor cooks up antidote to fake news

Dr Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist from the University of Cambridge, has found that the negative impact of fake news can be reduced if people know it’s coming.

“Misinformation can be sticky, spreading and replicating like a virus” says Dr van der Linden. ““We wanted to see if we could find a ‘vaccine’ by pre-emptively exposing people to a small amount of the type of misinformation they might experience. A warning that helps preserve the facts.”

In his study published in January 2017, Dr van der Linden found some success in “inoculating” people with such a vaccine over the highly-polarised issue of climate change. Initially it was found that giving a participant false information about climate change immediately after giving them true information would “cancel out” the impact of the true information: the participant would, in other words, still be clueless and not have accepted the first, true statement.

“Researchers then added a small dose of misinformation to delivery of the climate change fact, by briefly introducing people to distortion tactics used by certain groups. This “inoculation” helped shift and hold opinions closer to the truth, despite the follow-up exposure to ‘fake news’.”

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