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As much as Facebook claims that it is helping to clean up the “fake news” phenomenon, the fact remains that social media platforms like Facebook remain one of the biggest enablers of fake news. Without the ability to leverage massive social networks to spread fake news, it would be very difficult to gain the traction required for ideas to go viral. As a result, fraudsters, political propagandists and criminal hackers are exploiting a whole new set of tools to construct fake profiles, fake followers and fake networks in order to achieve their goals.
As a result, fake news is no longer just about getting clicks and views – it’s now about manipulating public opinion, helping toxic ideas gain mainstream appeal, and even manufacturing false perceptions about grassroots support for an idea. At one time, fake news was all about getting people to click on a link for a ridiculously untrue story (“Miracle cure for cancer discovered!”). Now, it’s about manipulating society in ways that can impact everything from the economy to the political landscape.
New ways to spread fake news
Say, for example, you’re a lobbyist in Washington in the unfortunate position of having to defend an unpopular idea. With a little fake news magic, it’s now possible to run an “astroturfing” campaign in which fake followers, fake bots, and fake news articles can help to create the appearance that your position is actually gaining grassroots support. Moreover, you can now deploy bots against your opponent. Every time your rival posts an article or video, these bots can flood the content with “dislikes” and plenty of malicious comments intended to discredit the idea.
Fake news can even be used to instigate street protests. Through a systematic process of infiltrating existing social networks with fake followers and bots, and then liking, re-tweeting or supporting certain content, it’s possible to build the type of momentum required to get people into the streets for just about any cause. According to one estimate by Trend Micro, the going price tag for a street protest is $10,000. Think about that for a moment – if you would like to discredit a political opponent, all it takes is $10,000 and you can help to create the public perception that there has been a massive political shift in your favor. (Much cheaper than running attack ads on TV, right?)
Where things get really dangerous is when fake news is used to discredit journalists and social media content creators. If you’ve spent any time on YouTube, you’re probably aware that some of the most popular content creators routinely deal with trolls peddling fake news about them and their content. And, in fact, it’s now just as easy to discredit a journalist by building a massive opposition network using 100,000+ fake followers as it is to create a fake celebrity with 100,000+ fans.
Better education is the key
The troubling part, of course, is how “truth” is becoming an ever more elusive concept. What’s real and what’s not, if literally everything can be faked? What if massive street protests are actually the result of a “hidden hand”? What if migrant caravans headed for the United States are not just spontaneously forming out of thin air, but are being supported by social media campaigns? If a street protest costs $10,000, then how much does a migrant caravan cost?
You can see where this is all leading – fake news is no longer just about supporting the wrong position, or electing the wrong candidate – things are moving to the point where social media has the potential to turn a society upside down. Social media platforms know so much about us – our likes, our behaviors, our preferences – that it is surprisingly easy to manipulate us by pushing the right buttons.
With that in mind, perhaps the only tool that can be used to combat fake news is better education. People need to be able to spot the fakes, and they should be taught how to challenge different “narratives” that appear on social media first before moving to mainstream media. If society as a whole is not willing to take this step, then you can be assured that there are plenty of elected officials who will suggest the creation of a very Orwellian Ministry of Truth to tell the people what’s fake and what’s not.