Lizzie Marvelly: Fake news has lessons for us all

By Lizzie Marvelly

Before you tweet that Trump Tower is to be built in Auckland, read the whole story, question the source and see if there are any other articles to back it up.  Photo / AP
Before you tweet that Trump Tower is to be built in Auckland, read the whole story, question the source and see if there are any other articles to back it up. Photo / AP

Trump Tower will be coming to Auckland, a government spokesperson announced yesterday.

The project will commence construction in 2018, following a special agreement signed between Prime Minister John Key and US President-Elect Donald Trump this week. Details of the deal are said to include free accommodation for Prime Minister Key and senior ministers Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Steven Joyce, Jonathan Coleman and Chris Finlayson - but not for Paula Bennett and Amy Adams because they're women - at Trump properties around the globe, and a gilded statue of a kiwi on the White House lawn.

"The kiwi will be right at home here at the White House," Trump told reporters. "It has big feet just like I do, and we all know what that means."

Disclaimer: Before I find myself hauled in front of the Press Council, Trump Tower, as far as I know, is not coming to Auckland any time soon.

Nor will a large-footed kiwi be taking up residence at the White House. The story, of course, is completely bogus, though had it been presented on Facebook as a realistic-looking newslink you can bet with a fair degree of certainty that someone, somewhere would've believed it.

Fake news is just one of the scourges plaguing the modern media landscape but it is certainly among the most alarming. In the space of a few hours, an unverified claim can travel around the globe. Take the case of Eric Tucker from Austin, Texas.

He posted a picture on Twitter of a number of parked buses with the caption: "Anti-Trump protesters in Austin are not as organic as they seem. Here are the buses they came in. #fakeprotests #trump2016 #austin". The buses, as it transpired, had been hired to transport those attending a large software conference in Austin that day. But why let facts get in the way of a great story?

Tucker's tweet was retweeted thousands of times, and was eventually picked up by a string of right-wing media sites, which in turn amplified the story. It spread like wildfire, culminating in Donald Trump himself tweeting, "Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!"

The story of the Austin buses is tame compared to the floods of fabricated stories created by Macedonian teenagers for the purpose of driving profits through clickbait. The economic model is simple and was easily exploited during the US election. Entrepreneurial teens set up websites with American-sounding domain names such as USADailyPolitics.com, published bogus stories - claiming Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted for her email scandal, for example - came up with sensationalist headlines designed to appeal to Trump supporters, shared them on Facebook and waited for the clicks to roll in, converting them into revenue through Google Adsense. One such fake story generated more than 140,000 engagements, bringing in a significant amount of income for the owner of the bogus website.

In a media landscape where the most outrageous story wins the biggest financial reward, the reporting of truth has never been more under threat. The internet, contrary to its early promise to democratise knowledge, may just be morphing into the most powerful propaganda machine the world has ever seen.

A large number of Many people simply scan a headline and share the story without reading it.

The lesson to be learnedfrom all this? We urgently need to educate our society about media literacy and critical thinking. Although the problem is undoubtedly systemic - representing a failure on the part of social networks that allows motivated parties to exploit and manipulate the public conversation for financial or political gain - tech companies are notoriously slow to react to editorial concerns, preferring to hide behind a problematically defined version of free speech that often serves their own interests.

The only armour we have in the fight against misinformation is a healthy dose of scepticism. The first step, believe it or not, is taking the time to actually read the whole story. Many people simply scan a headline and share the story without reading it. The next step is to question the source. Is it legitimate? Does the domain name of the site have an extra .co tacked on the end? ABCNews.com.co, for example, masquerades as the official site for ABC News, which has the lookalike domain name ABCNews.go.com.

The "Denver Guardian", which posted a story claiming an FBI agent investigating Hillary Clinton was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide, listed its newsroom as being located at an address that, surprise, was actually a carpark next to an empty building. The Denver Guardian, as the Denver Post - a newspaper that has been around for more than30 years - was forced to point out, does not exist.

Another important step is to search for other media articles about the same story. If the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian are all reporting on a story, it is fairly likely that you're not being hoodwinked. If you're seeing an outrageous story that is not being reported anywhere else, it's highly likely that it's fake.

The scepticism shouldn't, however, end there. Even when a source has been proven to be legitimate, the reader should always be wary of bias. As our society has become more polarised, so too has our media. Organisations like Fox News, for all of their claims of being "fair and balanced", are highly partisan in nature, with clear political leanings. No story should be simply accepted at face value.

In an age when our media space has been invaded by tricksters, aided by our modern tendency to sequester ourselves in digital echo chambers in which we speak only to those who agree with us, and threatening our democracy, media literacy and critical thinking now really needs to be taught at high school. Young people are by far the biggest consumers of digital media. We need to teach them to dig deeper.

The idea that the next generation is growing up raised on a steady diet of propaganda should send a chill down our spines.

- NZ Herald

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