June 6, 2018

Know your enemy: seven types of fake news to better understand and fight disinformation

Fake news are in the spotlight these days. From Trump’s election to the Brexit campaign, every big political issue is plagued with disinformation attempts to divide and confuse voters. But what exactly are fake news? We think it’s important to get a better understanding of the topic before we can even hope to fight it.

At first glance, it looks like Fake News is a recent phenomenon. After all, it’s only in the final days of the 2016 Presidential campaign that people got interested in this idea. OK, “interested” might not be the best word to describe it, but you get the idea.

Trump and fake news


The Google Trends chart below perfectly illustrates the emergence of the fake news era.

trends.embed.renderExploreWidget("TIMESERIES", {"comparisonItem":[{"keyword":"fake news","geo":"","time":"2004-01-01 2018-05-31"}],"category":0,"property":""}, {"exploreQuery":"date=all&q=fake%20news","guestPath":"https://trends.google.com:443/trends/embed/"});

There was low, but quite steady volume of search requests ever since Google started monitoring searches in 2004, but it didn’t change much. Until it exploded in November, 2016. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Remember 2016. The situation was actually quite confusing. The media were accusing Trump of using fake news to influence voters and spread his own ideology among the popular opinion.

What did Trump? Well, he would fight back using the same weapon.

Trump tweets about fake news

It all got really messed up when fake news websites followed the same strategy and started spreading the news that fake news were in fact an invention of the mainstream media to silent them…

Inception: when fake news websites accuse authentic media outlets of spreading fake news

And that’s how it all started.

But are fake news really that young? Let’s take a quick look back in History.

An old idea


Lies have been around for a while in human history. Remember Adam and Eve trying to hide their original sin from God in the Garden of Eden?

This quote by Jonathan Swift dates is more than three centuries old and shows the difficult relationship between lies and the truth, where lies are usually considered more attractive and efficient than the truth.
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”
– Jonathan Swift, The Examiner (1710)

A mass manipulation tool


On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine sank in the Havana Harbor. The ship was sent there to protect US citizens living in Cuba during the Cuban revolt against Spain.

While the reasons for the Maine’s sinking were unclear, the New York Journal published an article by William Randolph Hearst where he blamed Spain.

An old example of fake news: The New York Journal story about the USS Maine's sinking

The story influenced popular opinion in the USA, eventually sparking the American-Spanish war.

As of today, the cause of the Maine’s sinking remains unclear, despite a handful of investigations by Spanish officials, US officials and TV channels.

Sometimes fake news is even unintentional


Forty years later, on October 30, 1938, CBS radio evening programs were interrupted by a breaking report of a UFO falling on a farm in New Jersey.

A couple minutes later, a new interruption told the audience that Martians had emerged from the object and started attacking the crowd of curious onlookers with heat rays.

A rapid series of increasingly alarming news bulletins followed, detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place across the United States and the world.

This was all an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, directed by Orson Welles, but people really believed it was happening!

Panicked people would call the radio station to check out, the mayor a Midwest town told the staff he had mobs on the streets, the press gathered in front of CBS Radio studios to know more about the attack.

Eventually, the police broke in, ordering the show to be interrupted. What started as a fictional story for Halloween ended up being too close to the truth.

fake news war of the worldsA history of fake news: newspaper report on the War of the worlds radio show by Orson Welles

Fake news come in all shapes and flavors


On the one hand, we have a newspaper story that is consciously fake, used to manipulate the popular opinion into starting a war.

On the other hand, we have a cultural piece with no intention to harm but sparking panic as people believe it.

And both are considered as fake news. In fact, recent research by Claire Wardle shows there are seven different types of fake news. Her scale of “information disorder” goes from satire to fabricated content, following a growing intent to harm.

Fake news: seven types of mis- and disinformation (chart by First Draft)

In this article, we dig into Claire Wardle’s work and enrich it with examples.

Satire or parody


This type of content is created to make fun of a person or institution. There is no intent to harm, even if there can be some damage on the reputation of the target.

The point is, satire and parody usually are exaggerated which helps to spot them. But sometimes it is so subtle that some people will believe it anyway and then it becomes fake news.

Fake news: Trump uses numbers from a satiric piece in authentic campaign speech
The 250,000 figure actually came out of parody website Real News Right Now, not from the Obama Administration.

False connection


False connection happens when headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content.

The typical example is clickbait previews showing a content attractive enough to make you click, while you won’t find it in the target page.

There’s no real intention to harm either: this process usually serves the purpose of creating traffic in order to earn money through advertising.

Fake news: when clickbait ads use content that won't be found in the target article
Needless to say, neither Elijah Wood nor Mischa Barton are actually transgender. Or are they?

Misleading content


Spreading misleading content means you are using authentic information with the purpose of harming someone or their credibility.

Unflattering pictures, speech bloopers, or insensitive declarations can do miracles to attack a politician or CEO.

In the 2016 US election campaign, surfacing the infamous “grab’em by the pussy” quote of Trump was an example of misleading content: authentic content used to harm him in a topic that arguably has nothing to do with his ability to run a country.


False context


This one can be hard to detect because the information is authentic. But the context in which it is used is not the right one.

The usual suspects here are pictures of a real situation that are used to illustrate a totally different one.

Or taking words someone really told, and using them out of context or within another topic to spark anger and disgust.

Fake news: when real footage is used in the wrong context
This campaign ad about migrants entering the USA from Mexico actually shows a scene that happened in Morocco.

Imposter content


Imposter content happens when genuine information sources are impersonated.

If too incredible, imposter content will slowly destroy the trust of the general public towards the media industry.

If more subtle, imposter content really can help spread false information, as the general public will not spot the impersonation.

Fake news: imposter ABC News website distributes false information
In this tweet, Eric Trump shares an information that seemingly comes from ABC News, but is in fact imposter content: abcnews.com.co is not the official ABC News website.

Manipulated content


This one speaks by itself. An authentic piece of information is tweaked and edited to make it appear different.

This works very, very well with pictures. Even if we are all aware that pictures can be manipulated very easily.

Fake news: a picture of Emma Gonzalez is manipulated to attack her behavior and opinions
The original picture shows school shooting survivor and anti-gun activist Emma Gonzalez tearing apart a shooting target, that was later transformed into the US constitution so she would appear anti-patriotic.

Fabricated content


This is new content with the most part of the information within being false. It is created with the purpose to harm people, or spread or support disinformation.

It includes false quotes, ads or news articles, sophisticated picture manipulation, false websites and pages and fabricated social media posts.

Fabricated content is very efficient because there is no real way to identify it other than checking the contents and sources.

Fake news: false content is being spread out on social media to keep Hillary voters at home
Images like this one were circulating online just before the US election, incorrectly claiming people could stay at home and text their vote.

A nuanced approach to fake news


Right now there’s a whole public outcry against fake news. People feel they have been deceived.

Big social media platforms are adjusting their algorithms to help fight fake news. Big players in the news industry have launched numerous initiatives with the same goal. Even public authorities have jumped on the train.

Will humanity really be able to fight fake news? Nobody can tell.

As you see now, fake news is a complicated landscape. At Enigma, we are convinced that digging in and using a nuanced approached to the various types of fake news will help us navigate the world of the post-truth era.

This article has been posted by Olivier Kennedy
on June 6, 2018
in #Other
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