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Why we must fight fake news


Introduction about fake news delivered by Rolf Olsen at the Graduate Institute in Geneva on June 14, 2017

Fake is real – and must be fought

Imagine you left planet earth on June 14 last year and you returned today, one year later. 

You come back to the news that:
  • The United Kingdom is in the process of leaving the European Union
  • Boris Johnson is the Kingdom´s Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Donald Trump is the president of the United States
  • France is led by a President and Political party you never heard of
  • The new prime minister in the UK has just called an election to strengthen her play and gotten a hung parliament in return

You wonder, who needs fake news with real news like this?

Nevertheless, thank you for joining us here at the Graduate Institute to discuss fake news and how it is impacting our society. Today our group of students at the Executive program for advocacy in international affairs have had a workshop on defensive advocacy.

On my agenda in the next twenty minutes are:
  • Why are fake news important?
  • What characterises the appearance of fake?
  • How do we deal with the challenge of fake?

So, let us start with why the interference of fake is a serious problem?

We believe that good defence must be part of any strategy for advancement of offense.

You cannot be certain about success unless you have prepared for all possible unforeseen scenarios.

Just consider the recent UK election – Theresa May called people to the ballots with the message of “Strong and Stable”.  Think about how that message resonates when terrorists attack young people at a concert one weekend and on the streets of London the weekend after.

Those terrorist acts are for sure very sad real news.

But they illustrate how politicians and leaders no longer are in control of their message.  External events and planned interference have become the new normal.

I ask, would Theresa May have gotten a stronger majority if she had been responding to the terrorist acts in a different way?

Or would she have had greater success if she went with a more humble and compassionate message than “Strong and stable”?

Or let us reflect on the US election too?  If the Russian authorities truly orchestrated the leaks from the Democratic Party, as the former FBI director so adamantly insisted last week – then the role of interference has risen to another level.

Imagine that the world’s democratic super power is no longer in control of its domestic election process.

The subject of fake news belongs in my view in this context – how malicious forces interfere in democratic processes and how the border between true and false is becoming increasingly blurred.

So, with the idea of fake – whether it is about the sender or the information itself – the impact on the receiver is grave.

Fake news is not just a PR problem, it is a democratic problem – rocking with the very foundation of our democratic processes.

How is this possible?

Because of technology, the speed of the internet and the proliferation of social media.

Yet, the idea of fake and interference is certainly not new.

I got to experience this when I in the early 80s did my military service at the end of the cold war.  With a NATO Top Secret clearance, I got to study up close how the Soviet Union was infiltrating Norwegian politics.  But it was a person to person process – and it took a weak character for it to work.

Today technology and social media allows information to be blasted around the world – often without any human editorial control at all.

After my military service, I worked as an editor in a daily newspaper for a while, and if you have been and editor or journalist, you recognize the pride and ethics that underpin great journalism – the truth is your endeavour. 

The Society of Professional Journalist, Code of Ethics says the following: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.”

So, the most powerful enemy of fake news is a strong press corps.

And here we are with another problem related to the phenomena of fake:

The media are getting more and more resource strained.  They have less and less resources to check and prevent fake.  Simultaneously, we have bloggers and social media led by people who were never subject to the training as journalists or any high ground editorial platform.

Many media are kept alive by product sponsorships and contributions from companies.  So, it is pertinent to ask: is a story about a certain product enabled by a contribution from the company behind the product – a fake or a real story?

With these introductory remarks, I wanted to illustrate that fake come in many facets and challenge not only our democratic processes, but also our learning, influence and purchasing choices.

So, by putting fake on the agenda, we want to address a real societal problem.

Before I open up for discussion, let us try to understand the fake phenomena better? And let me address the question of what characterises the appearance of fake?

We can think of the following fake-dimensions:
  • Where the originator is malicious or unknown
  • Where there is prevalent presence of confirmation bias
  • Lies and fake news
  • Alternative facts

I have already given some ideas about unknown or malicious originators of information. 

I think it is important to include them, because for me communication is built on three sacred principles:
  • The sender or the source is known
  • The information can be verified
  • The receiver can independently make up her or his mind without fear or undue influence

So, what about bias –  Is confirmation bias something new?

Biased reporting is nothing new – particularly in the US, UK and France. News outlets have always taken a biased POV not just in editorials, but also in what stories are covered, and how news is presented.

Outlets report stories in a way which appeal to their viewers/readers, and this in turn reinforces the opinions of their readers.

  • g. right-wing outlets such as those owned by Rupert Murdoch are known for right wing views – Similarly CNN, The Guardian etc. take a left-wing view.
  • Take example of a police shooting – right-wing news outlet is more likely to report favourably on the side of the police office. Left-wing outlet are more likely to focus on the victim.

A lot of media outlets are also politicised – endorsing candidates and platforms, and issuing often scathing attacks on politicians they don’t support. This has an effect on domestic politics.

  • g. Donald Trump routinely blames ‘media bias for purposely smearing his actions.
  • after 1992 general election in the UK, Labour leader Neil Kinnock railed against the right-wing media’s “misinformation and disinformation” as the reason his party failed to win government.
  • The Washington Post published the following study from Data Face on the 2016 US election campaign on which outlets favoured which candidate: They compiled a total of 21,981 articles written about the election dating back to July 1, 2015. To be included in the data set, each article had to reference either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in its headline (but not both). The articles came from the websites of eight major media outlets: the New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Politico, Fox News and the Weekly Standard. The variation in treatment of the candidates was great ranging from Fox News to the New York Times. So, bias is for sure a real issue in coverage of political campaigning.

Fake news is not a new phenomenon either.

It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print— a lot longer, in fact, than verified, “objective” news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago.”

From the start, fake news has tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries there are examples of several high-profile newspapers that ran fake stories to increase circulation.

  • In 1844, anti-Catholic newspapers in Philadelphia falsely claimed that Irishmen were stealing bibles from public schools, leading to violent riots and attacks on Catholic churches.
  • During the Gilded Age, yellow journalism flourished, using fake interviews, false experts and bogus stories to spark sympathy and rage as desired. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published exaggerated crime dramas to sell papers. In the 1890s, plutocrats like William Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War.
  • During McCarthyist era of the 1950s, US newspapers were regularly fed false stories about high profile people suspected of Communist sympathies – often reporting them as fact

So, what are the new news about fake news?

As I already mentioned, technology is the game changer.

The rapid growth of the internet over the past two decades has broken the oligopoly of ‘traditional’ media – Many people, particularly younger generations, no longer naturally turn to the newspaper or TV for news.

The declining readership has put financial pressure on journalists to put out stories more quickly, and be more sensationalist – resulting in “clickbait articles”, and less rigorously sourced stories. 

Fake news and biased news are easy to perpetuate online. The web gives a voice for anyone to write anything, and it is easy to make a website which looks and feels like a legitimate source. For example, there has been a rise in the number and reach of conspiracy theory websites, and ‘alternative news’/fake news sources claiming to challenge the ‘mainstream’.

State sponsored news outlets have grown as a propaganda tool online – eg. RT / Sputnik (Russia), PressTV (Iran) – and it is hard to distinguish the nuances in the way they report, or misreport.

Political blogs which do not perpetuate fake news, but have a very overt bias are hard to identify, and easy to confuse with reputable news sources.

Fake news for monetary gain. The ease of making money through adverts on high traffic website encourages fake news website to make their claims as sensationalist as possible, raising traffic and therefore revenue.

The growth of meme’s – pictures with text written over them, has changed how messages are delivered.

In a political context, they boil a message down to its most basic form, and present a picture which gives a visual link to the message. E.g. A negative meme about Hillary Clinton which shows her looking upset, with a comment about her emails being found out.  They are easily shared, and usually prompt a reaction – amusing and critical of the subject of the meme – without giving the whole story.

Social media has increasingly been referred to as an echo-chamber – where we are only exposed to views which confirm what we ourselves believe. This is subtly perpetuated in three ways:

Firstly, by an overall political leaning on social media: Generally, one side of the spectrum tends to be more widely discussed and shared on social media during a political campaign than the other. During the US election, pro-Trump had an edge over pro-Clinton. In the UK General election, pro-Corbyn was more common on social media that pro-May. In the French presidential election, the far-right FN was more widely shared than other candidates. Therefore, users who are not actively looking for news with which they agree are more likely to come across news from the most prevalent side.

Secondly, by our friends / people we follow: We like and share things which we believe in on Facebook. We are also likely to be Facebook friends with friends we share values (and beliefs) with in the real world. The same applies on Twitter, where we like and follow people we agree with.

Thirdly, by algorithms: social media platforms know what we like, and know that we are more likely to come back if we see what we like. So, they show us more of what we like – so we get more articles suggested to us which we already agree with.

So up to know I have concluded that Fake is challenging our democracy and it is materialising in so many different ways. What can we do about it?

We must fight fake and anything that that challenge the democratic values so dear to us.

How can you as an individual make a difference?

  1. Always rebut false information. To rebut means to say that this is wrong and this is why it is wrong.  If you see something you know not to be true, correct it – others may not have the same knowledge and may let the false information infect them
  2. Support the free press by subscribing and paying for information. The role of the media is more important than ever and their existence is threatened by financial conditions.  Pick a few media you believe in and pay for their services.
  3. Participate in the dialogue and the elections. If you are lucky to have the right to vote where you live, use that right – and also be active on social media – help raise the standard.
  4. Any other ideas?

I am keen to hear your views on how we as a society can deal with the phenomena of fake, but here are some thought starters that we can discuss:

  1. We need to establish ethical platforms and transparent editorial processes for major communication platforms such as Facebook and Google. Ref recent discussions related to Facebook who hired thousands of people to help monitor traffic
  2. Education and awareness of fake news amongst the young population. Schools must put even more effort on evaluation of news and information.  I think they are doing so – recently my son told me about the difference about jackal and giraffe language, look it up yourself…
  3. Tobacco is now followed by a health warning in most societies. Maybe we need to have a similar warning for promotional editorials and content marketing.  “This information is supported by funding from parties with economic interests in this information being spread”.  We see this in “advertising content” in some media, I think this is advertising wasted and I consistently never read this kind of stuff.  Then I much rather I see an old fashion in your face ad with a clear message and value proposition.
  4. Any other ideas?

My basic message today is maybe an oxymoron – fake is real.

Whether you are an aspiring leader, politician or parent – you need to be ready for fake and fight it.

Thank you – let us now take some questions and comments

Rolf Olsen

CEO, based in Geneva

Rolf Olsen launched Leidar in 2010 and continues to lead the company as CEO.  He advises clients on strategy and narrative development; crisis management; and complex reputational issues on a global scale.

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