Understanding Fake News

Alongside the growth of social media there is increasing concern in many western democracies with the growing infusion of misinformation, or “fake news”, into public discourse and politics. Indeed, social media use has become the principal news source for many people and now fake news publishers are taking advantage of the unregulated social media labyrinth.  

Now, Google is trying to explain disinformation to social media users and how they can avoid fake news, following on from compelling academic research by Bristol University.

As social media has become an important news source for its users, the spread of inaccurate information 
has been theorised to adversely affect the decision-making processes of consumers and voters. After the November 2016 US election, many public officials and media organisations criticised social media platforms and other tech companies, including Google, for allowing fakes news to spread, possibly influencing the outcome of the election. 

In the wake of such criticism, Google promised to prevent its ads from appearing on fake news websites, reducing the financial incentive for publishers to produce inaccurate content.

Based on research which has found that videos can improve people's ability to recognise manipulative content, Google launched Project Jigsaw. It's mission is to reduce online security dangers and it created 90-second video clips designed to familiarise users with manipulation techniques such as scapegoating and deliberate incoherence shown on YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook. The Jigsaw videos introduce concepts from the “misinformation playbook”, illustrated with relatable examples from film and TV such as Family Guy or, in the case of false dichotomies, Star Wars and shown in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland to combat fake news about Ukrainian refugees.

“Propaganda, lies and misdirections are nearly always created from the same playbook,” according to Prof Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol. “We developed the videos by analysing the rhetoric of demagogues, who deal in scape-goating and false dichotomies.”

The research was founded on a developing area of study called "prebunking", which investigates how disinformation can be exposed before people engage with it.

During the research, the adverts were shown to 5.4 million people and then 22k were surveyed. After watching the explanatory videos, researchers found:

  • An improvement in respondents' ability to spot disinformation techniques.
  • An increased ability to discern trustworthy from untrustworthy content.
  • An improved ability to decide whether or not to share content

The academic researchers argue that prebunking may be more effective at fighting the misinformation deluge than fact-checking each untruth after it spreads, the classic ‘debunk’, which is impossible to do at scale, and can entrench conspiracy theories by feeling like personal attacks to those who believe them.

Google said the "exciting" findings showed how social media can actively pre-empt the spread of disinformation.

University of Bristol:      Lewandowsky & Van Der Linden:     University of Cambridge:    BBC:    Springer

Google Jigsaw:       Campaign for Accountability:      Bjorn Ross et Al:     Vice:   

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