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How to stem the torrent of politically-twisted fake news

04 Oct 2017  |  Raymond Snoddy 
How to stem the torrent of politically-twisted fake news

Heavy fines may be the only thing that really gets the attention of social media companies over fake news, writes Raymond Snoddy - but there are other ways they could redeem themselves in the meantime

Apart from the obvious, the horrific deaths of so many people enjoying a Country Music festival, the abiding tragedy of the shootings in Las Vegas is the absolute certainty that nothing will be done about it.

The American flag will be lowered to half-mast, prayers will be said, there will be a minute’s silence in Congress and the families of the victims will have to make do with the “warmest condolences” from President Trump on Twitter.

The President, that is, who received $21 million for his campaign from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which seems to have the power to prevent any restrictions on gun ownership however modest.

The NRA plus the American cultural attachment to guns and the second amendment to the US constitution entitling Americans to bear arms, totally enfeebles Congress even though there have been 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days.

The academic evidence could not be clearer. The more guns in a society the greater number of gun deaths and the fewer restrictions on gun ownership, unsurprisingly, more people die.

A study of the years from 1983 to 2013 of mass shootings in 25 industrialised countries found that the US accounted for nearly double such incidents compared with all the other 24 countries put together.

More alarmingly a recent Harvard study found that the frequency of mass shootings in the US was increasing over time. The gap between mass shootings averaged 200 days between 1983 to 2011 and 64 days since 2011. Presumably the average has just got worse.

As CNN has pointed out, the majority of the mass killers were white male Americans and this has been met with a “fatal passivity” and talk of “lone wolves” and “mental impairment.”

Can you imagine the pandemonium and very different political reactions if most of them had been brown, black or even Muslim.

Some supporters of tighter gun restrictions now believe that the only thing that will make any meaningful change is a mass movement on the ground on the scale and passion of the campaign that ended segregation.

In the meantime it would be a small positive step to tackle anew the torrent of politically twisted fake news that spews out from the social media on such occasions - “news” that could in turn lead to further violence.

The record shows that Facebook and Google pushed false stories emerging from far right websites that the Las Vegas murderer - 'shooter' gives him too high a status like someone out of the movies - was a Democrat who was an opponent of Donald Trump.

He was even given a false name, Geary Danley, and a political persona based on Facebook “likes” suggesting his aim was to kill Trump-supporting fascist dogs.

YouTube even published a completely unsubstantiated rumour that the killer was a Hillary Clinton supporter.

In fact the police have been unable to identify any passions or affiliations displayed by the real killer Stephen Paddock other than a love of guns and gambling.

The former accountant is of course yet another white male American with, almost by definition, psychopathic tendencies.

His girlfriend Marilou Danley, who was in another country at the time, may indeed have been a registered Democrat.

The social media giants took down the false news, apologised and said what they always say: that they will work on their algorithms to try to improve them.

The problem goes beyond inaccurate names and false political affiliations, although that can be bad enough.

The concentration on political labels and alleged political motives of perpetrators is a complete distraction from the main issue - how an individual can accumulate more than 40 guns, some of them semi-automatic, together with the perfectly legal ability to buy what is needed to turn them into fully automatic weapons.

If the role of the social media in reporting mass murder incidents such as Las Vegas was a one-off it would be unfortunate but society could survive.

In fact the charge sheet against the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is becoming extensive and goes to the heart of the political process that helped bring gun-supporter Trump to power.

A new study by academics from the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Howard and Bence Kollanyi, found that "junk news", defined as extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial content with comment masquerading as genuine news was not evenly spread.

Twitter users got more misinformation and more polarising and conspiratorial material than professionally produced news and the average levels of misinformation was higher in swing states than uncontested states, weighted by population.

It’s always difficult to prove direct cause and effect but it’s at least suggestive when there were six states such as Florida and Pennsylvania where the Trump margin of victory was less than 2 per cent. The social media “effect” didn’t have to be that great.

And back in the UK in the wake of the Parsons Green bomb, Sun reporters were able to buy all the ingredients for a similar bomb in a single order from Amazon without any alarm bells ringing.

In the end heavy fines may be the only thing that really gets the attention of the social media tech companies over fake and malicious news, although there will always be problems of assessing where the boundaries should lie between fake or junk news and free speech.

One way they could redeem themselves, apart from tweaking their algorithms, is to give greater prominence to socially useful causes.

If that should prove impossible to define then it should be up all the supporters of more restrictions on the casual ownership of semi-automatic weapons to make their views known on social media and brave the abuse they will undoubtedly receive.

As the founder of the Salvation Army asked in a rather different context, why should the devil have all the best tunes?

There is no reason on earth why the purveyors of fake or junk news should be allowed to win by default because of the sheer volume of their misguided and perverted passions.

The very mechanism which created Geary Danley, the Democratic hater of Donald Trump, could and should be used as the first step in putting pressure on Congress to fight back against the NRA.

And indeed in combatting fake news wherever it is to be found.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 12 Oct 2017
“"The social media giants took down the false news, apologised and said what they always say: that they will work on their algorithms to try to improve them."
Separating this from the tragedy of the event itself, it's a huge logistical and moral challenge for online platforms, and is one of, if not the, problem holding this process back.
Google and Facebook don't create reporting, so they aren't involved in the processing and summarising of the events themselves, and aren't equipped with that kind of resource. Instead, they're means of sharing /"surfacing" others' content - and so their role comes down to working what should be shared more prominently than other sources.
The first main route is algorithmically prioritising content, based presumably in large part on what is getting most traffic, what is being shared most widely and so on. In its purest form, that's context-agnostic: a story that I have a goose laying golden eggs would, with sufficient traction in the form of traffic and shares, be promoted above another story saying the goose is in fact a dog.
The other option removes that agnosticism, and requires Google and Facebook to make a call: essentially "geese don't lay golden eggs, this will not be promoted". The problem is that as you've highlighted in numerous columns, the definition of "fact" becomes very challenging around the margins. Geese don't lay golden eggs, but what *were* the motivations of an individual in a newsworthy event? It gets uncomfortably close to censorship and becoming an arbiter of what is a correct worldview - and one can see why Facebook in particular has been reluctant to open that particular door.
Ultimately, it will have to; this kind of event presents clear lines that cannot be crossed, in terms of promoting particular coverage. But it will require significant focused hiring, and will involve very difficult decisions, particularly around responsibility for the content found on Facebook. They will get it wrong more than once, and will feel the wrath of audiences who believe it's censoring them, before they get it right.”