No, soldiers aren’t being kicked off an army base to make way for Syrian refugees. Sorry, but Ted Cruz didn’t have a Twitter meltdown and blame God for his failed presidential campaign. And that viral video of a woman being chased down a mountainside with a bear is almost definitely fake.
The internet has a fake news problem and some lies can be dangerous. A fantastic story might be entertaining, but misinformation can fundamentally change how people view the world and their fellow citizens, influencing opinions, behaviour and votes.
This isn’t really news – lies have always been part of the fabric of society, whether spoken or written – but the internet has given anyone a platform to share false information and the tools to make untruths ever harder to detect.
Understanding the origins of fake news is part of the process. So where does it come from?
Official sources of propaganda
Governments and political actors have long been fans of public manipulation techniques to serve their agenda. Although democracy and a free press can hold them to account, it doesn’t stop attempts to deceive.
One such instance came in 2013, when the North Korean news agency released a picture and accompanying story claiming to show military exercises as practice for an invasion of South Korea.
“It was meant to be a bit of sabre-rattling,” said Craig Silverman, editor of BuzzFeed Canada, at a recent First Draft training event at The New York Times. “They distributed it, and a lot of news organisations know when it comes from the official news agency of North Korea you have to give a lot of caveats and give that context to people. But a lot of people still ran the image without thinking about it.”
Chief among the “troubling elements” in the image was the apparent cloning of military hovercraft, which had been copied and pasted to make the size of the ‘invasion’ force larger.
— The Times of London (@thetimes) March 27, 2013
Other famous examples of recent state propaganda include the Iranian Military Guard doing a similar copy-and-paste job on a picture of a missile launch, and the Russian government’s attempts to deflect alleged connections to the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
Looks like in this new MH17 satellite “evidence” the position of the Malaysia airlines logo is in the wrong place pic.twitter.com/evNY20AMvA
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) November 14, 2014
Russian state television broadcast “satellite images” appearing to show the moment MH17 was shot down by a fighter jet, but an investigation by Bellingcat found a number of flaws in the footage, showing that the image of MH17 is an almost identical match to a stock picture of a Boeing 777.
— Egor I. Ivanov (@thunderquack) November 14, 2014
“The Russian operation is pretty sophisticated,” said Silverman, with “websites, armies of twitter bots and other social media accounts.”
“It’s not just the official press release anymore,” he said, “it’s very organised elements online, whether it’s Twitter accounts or networks of interconnected websites.”
Western governments may be more subtle in their methods to influence public thinking but are no less enthusiastic about the idea. Over-spending on election campaigns, planting stooges as ‘analysts’ who toe the party line in television interviews, framing photo opportunities or the simple manipulation of statistics are all recent examples.
Activists, marketers and businesses
In 2012, a video emerged on YouTube claiming to show a launch party held by Shell as two oil rigs prepared to travel to the Arctic and begin drilling. The celebrations swiftly went wrong as, in an all-too-fitting allegory, a model rig intended to pour drinks began spraying thick black liquid over hapless guests and furniture.
“A bunch of people covered this and it started getting some traction,” said Silverman, “and the journalists who wrote about it got an email from a PR for Shell who said: ‘This was not our party, it’s fake, and if you want to know about what we’re actually doing follow this link’.”
The link led to a fake website with “crazy claims” about what Shell would be doing in the Arctic, however, in “a two-layer hoax” to trick journalists.
Who was behind the stunt? Greenpeace, along with serial tricksters The Yes Men. But they are far from alone in riffing on current events with fake viral videos.
In 2014, a pair of Norwegian filmmakers created a video purporting to show a young boy saving a girl from a hail of bullets to “generate discussion about children in conflict zones”. More recently, a Spanish production company created an Instagram account alleging to show a migrant documenting his journey to Europe from Dakar, Senegal.
Both were published as real by a number of news organisations claiming the story “cannot be independently verified” or simply publishing the pictures as real without context.
Check out ‘5 tell-tale signs of an online hoax‘
There has also been a recent trend in using listing sites like eBay or Craigslist as a platform for similar viral marketing campaigns.
Last summer, a video was posted to YouTube under the title “For Laura” by a man claiming to have ended a 12-year relationship. He generously offered his erstwhile love half of his possessions, so he cut them in half – literally. A laptop, a television, a bicycle, even a car and bed where all sawn in two and put up for sale on eBay.
BuzzFeed looked into the video but “the PR company and everyone just lied”, said Silverman, in what turned out to be a marketing stunt for a firm of divorce lawyers in Germany.
And just this week, a viral marketing firm teamed up with online fashion store Lyst to offer customers the chance to buy a puppy with their summer collection. Most news organisations quickly saw through the ruse, but some digging by The Malcontent exposed a web of Twitter accounts set up to spread the marketing campaign far and wide.
Governments aren’t the only organisations with an agenda to push.
One of the most famous examples of a hoaxer in the social media age came during Hurricane Sandy, when one well-connected Twitter user gleefully spread lies of unfolding chaos as the storm hit New York.
BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than 3 feet of water.
— Comfortably Smug (@ComfortablySmug) October 30, 2012
The account, @ComfortablySmug, “had a fair amount of followers” and “a decent reputation on Twitter”, said Silverman, so when it started tweeting falsely about flooding at the New York Stock Exchange and other events it was retweeted widely and reported by some news organisations as true.
BuzzFeed exposed the man behind the fraudulent tweets, a then-29-year-old political campaign manager, but not before he had spread more dangerous rumours about how all power to New York would be shut off and the subway would close for a week.
“For ComfortablySmug it was just in the moment they wanted to see what happened and we have to be aware of that, particularly in breaking news events,” Silverman said.
He is not alone. Breaking news often brings hoaxers out of the woodwork to ride the wave of interest or expose what they see as “lazy journalism”. Comedian Darius Davies persuaded news organisations he was on a re-routed flight to Berlin in February, with hilarious (and slightly NSFW) results, and one individual managed to get on television as a fake eyewitness to the San Bernardino shootings in December 2015.
Check out ‘How to stop fake news on Facebook‘
Tomasso De Benedetti is a famous and serial hoaxer, said Silverman, aiming to expose a perceived lack of verification standards in the Italian press. When not teaching Italian schoolchildren in Rome, De Benedetti has posed on Twitter as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Italian novellist Umberto Eco. He also sold faked interviews with John Grisham, Gore Vidal and Philip Roth, among others, to Italian newspapers.
“Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world but the news media believes it because of its need for speed,” De Benedetti told the Guardian in 2012.
Rather than pursuing a political ideology, some people just spread rumours for the thrill of it, or to try to catch news organisations out.
Fake news sites
A worrying development of the ability for anyone to publish anything online is the growth in fake news sites which publish spurious or ‘satirical’ stories to feed on people’s fears, interests or passions, said Silverman.
A story from one such site, NationalReport.net, claimed a Texas town had been put under quarantine after a family of five tested positive for Ebola. It received tens of thousands of shares, said Silverman, because it preyed heavily on national fears of the time, despite being “completely unbelievable”.
“They look like a traditional news website, they’re written in a traditional style, but everything on the site is fake,” he said. “They exist for financial reasons. People write articles they think people will share, typically on Facebook. They get shared, they go viral, and that sends traffic back to the site where they put ads on the pages with their fake articles.
“It’s not a huge money-making operation but there are some very committed people who are doing this. You’d be surprised at how far this can spread.”
And it is in the interests of the hoaxer to make sure it spreads far. So they often set up a network of websites and social media accounts to push it, adding a weight of legitimacy to the casual observer.
“You do one article, you promote it on one site, you aggregate it on your other sites, and you start getting an interconnected web of traffic going on,” Silverman added. “And for the average person, if they see it’s on one site and it’s linking and citing another site, it’s going to get past a lot of people and it does get past journalists too.”
Hoaxers have also begun setting up replica websites of mainstream news organisations, with slightly altered domain names like MSNBC.com.co, or using platforms like CloneZone to imitate a news outlet of choice.
One CloneZone fake in March claimed Bernie Sanders had been endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren in his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination, receiving more than 50,000 shares before it was taken down.
“It’s really appealing to passionate Sanders supporters, for people who are passionate and very partisan about this,” said Silverman. “And what happens in humans is we tend to lower our skepticism when something goes right to our core beliefs.”
By far the most common sources of fake news are “well meaning people who just share things and push them out and that causes them to go viral,” Silverman said.
People are more likely to trust their friends and family on social media than journalists “by more than 30 percentage points”, according to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer study, but they do not always impose the same checks on whether a story, picture or claim is true or not.
Hurricane Sandy unleashed perhaps the biggest wave of fake pictures around a single news event, but recent terror attacks have prompted a wave of false or misappropriated images to circulate on social media in solidarity with the victims.
While landmarks around the world lit up with the colours of the French and Belgian flags after the attacks in November 2015 and March of this year, many were tricked into believing the same was true after an attack in Lahore and the death of pop superstar Prince.
The quickest way to check out the origin of any image posted online is with a reverse image search, which cross-references the image with those in Google’s database or similar services. Chrome users can install the RevEye browser plugin to check an image with Google, TinEye, Bing, Yandex and Baidu to be doubly sure. Videos are harder to verify, while fake news sites often give away clues in their content or about pages.
Healthy skepticism about information shared online boils down to an old journalistic adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Silverman shared some tips for spotting fake news:
- Find the original source of a story
- Check the About page of a website
- Run the domain through whois.icann.org
- Google every name, reverse image search all the photos and compare against other sources
- Think about the motivation for sharing or creating it