The anatomy of ‘fake news’

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Here's a brief guide on how to spot fake news and what characterizes its ‘fakeness.’ Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Battling the spread of ‘fake news’ is similar to fighting a hydra, the many-headed monster of Greek mythology: once you cut off a head, another appears in its place.

Take for example the website filipinewsph.com, flagged a fake news website by the Center for Media Freedom Responsibility. The website is now dead — but not really. There is another active website with a similar name, linked as filipinews.info.

There is no way to know who the creators of the website are, or how its contents should be construed, except for a disclaimer: “Ph News Portal makes no representation, guarantees, or affirmation with regards to the precision, currency, or completeness of the substance contain in this website or any sites connected to this site.”

Reacting to the post, one commenter wrote: “In short, fake news.”

The term ‘fake news’ has been suggested as an oxymoron: an oxymoron for “lies,” says veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas of Vera Files, an independent organization that conducts fact checks on misleading and false claims circulating online. Speaking in a Senate probe, she states that ‘fake news’ are lies masquerading as truth. “One of the attributes of news is accuracy, truthfulness … so ‘pag sinabi mong ‘fake news,’ paano maging fake ang totoo? Parang hindi tama ‘yung word na ‘fake news.’”

Fake News.jpg 'Fake news' belongs to a long history of black propaganda and political spin. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Despite its proliferation, ‘fake news’ is a misnomer. The breadth of content disseminated over social media means we’re not talking about news anymore, but a misinformation and disinformation ecosystem — involving not only the content of the news, but the means as to how it is circulated and consumed. To misinform is to inadvertently share false information; to disinform is to deliberately create and share information known to be false, says Claire Wardle of First Draft News, a non-profit coalition at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, which is dedicated to improving the way we report and share content online

To use the term ‘misinformation and disinformation ecosystem’ may be more accurate than using the term ‘fake news,’ especially in the context of the Philippines. Congress is now crafting a law that could stop organized networks from creating, targeting, and disseminating information that is harmful to the public interest. Moreover, the ecosystem expands to information coming from the government officials themselves, who must be held to higher standards of accountability.

While the rise of disinformation here became more apparent during the 2016 elections, disinformation is nothing new. Media scholar Jonathan Ong, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, says the phenomenon is a “continuation of the long history of black propaganda and spin by ‘political operators,’” facilitated today by technology through the internet and social media.

“One of the attributes of news is accuracy, truthfulness … so ‘pag sinabi mong ‘fake news,’ paano maging fake ang totoo?” — Ellen Tordesillas

For example, the justice secretary once accused opposition officials of a destabilization plot by ‘exposing’ a group photo, and even ordered a probe. He later backtracked after the photo was verified. Presidential communications assistant secretary and blogger Mocha Uson, who faces libel charges for reporting on a fictitious bank account of a senator, was warned by senators to “use her power wisely” in light of social media gaffes on her Facebook page, which had shared outdated stories and inaccurate photos.

Mis- and disinformation, therefore, comes in different shapes and sizes: a highly emotional, baseless opinion, a misleading allegation that seems based on fact, a photo or video framed to deceive its audience. Worse, it even comes in the form of a meme. In her article, “Fake news. It’s complicated,” Wardle outlines seven types of mis- and disinformation:

1.  Satire or parody
2.  False connections (when headlines or photos don’t match the content)
3.  Misleading content (when information is framed towards an issue or individual
4.  False context
5.  Imposter content (when sources are “impersonated”)
6.  Manipulated content (when information is genuine but manipulated to deceive)
7.  Fabricated content

To distinguish between these types requires a sincere effort to expand one’s reading habits. It takes an experienced reader, for example, to determine that The Professional Heckler publishes satire and not fabricated content  — the former is intended to amuse, as with a joke; the latter to deceive, to pass off a lie as fact. The differences entail a separate discussion altogether. There lies the challenge: to sift through harmful information requires not just media background knowledge but also careful, critical thinking, which is not developed overnight.

 

 

As these websites go viral, it’s imperative that we help people discern what’s real from not.

Dubious URLs, ‘About Us’ page

Check the website address immediately. How much trust would you place on news that comes from a URL like pepengscorer.blogspot.com (a site that posts tabloid-like headlines with edited news clips) or okd2.com (a self-described satirical website that peddles its articles as news)? Some URLs also mimic legitimate news websites to entice readers to click. Some examples include breaking-bbc.co.uk (the proper url for BBC is bbc.com) and tv-cnn.com and cnn-channel.com (now down, but mimicked CNN; the proper URL is cnn.com or edition.cnn.com for CNN International, or cnnphilippines.com).

Particularly in the Philippines, many “fake news” sites also seem to identify a particular individual (see du30today.com or dutertedefender.com) or purport to be a portal for news, but dispense with accountability via an absent “About Us” page. Even if an “About Us” page exists, there is still no particular individual identified (see angatpilipino.info or pinoythinking.info). The mentioned sites contain the same “About Us” text. Both state they “share viral videos, photos, and news in the Philippines. The videos and pictures shared are carefully selected to ensure not libelous and do not contain defamation. We are happy to share to entertain you. If you have videos or photos that you think could go viral then we are glad to share it in our site.”

“A news website should be accountable for what is posted on its page, and it starts with identifying the people behind it, as well as how they can be contacted so they can be asked to explain errors posted in their sites, among others.” — Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

 

Some similar sites also contain disclaimers, stating no one ensures the accuracy of the information on the website (see Duterte Defender, netcitizen.co or filipinews.info, which word their disclaimers the same way). These sites explicitly say they do not guarantee the “precision, currency, or completeness” of their contents, which is tantamount to saying that the contents are not guided by any standards at all.

Emotional, sensationalized, tabloid-like headlines

Ong says ‘fake news’ takes the form of “online news stories, where it’s emotionally manipulative rather than being fair or factual.” He added: “they would trigger people into anger or hate,” shared through filter bubbles with like-minded people most likely to agree with each other.

Tokhang TV, for example, has a video titled “PRRD: SI CONCHITA MAY KABIT NA KORONEL!” (All caps and exclamation point theirs.) The 14-minute video, however, is a cut-and-paste version of various news reports, discussing SSS benefits, a bank theft, among many others. At the beginning is presidential footage saying he hates drugs, and a few statements that neither confirm nor verify the headline.

Content like this is called ‘clickbait,’ the headline of which is exaggerated (often to the point of sensationalizing) to entice readers to click.

Questionable bylines

“Juan Tagabisto” appears both in Du30Today and Philnewstrend (with URL dakilanglahi.info). The word “tagabisto” pertains to a whistleblower, and when attached to the everyday name “Juan” and a website without any links to its creators, does nothing to ensure reporter accountability. Netcitizen.co has an anonymous “kcr” who writes most of its stories. The website Mediacurious has an author called “Freedom of Speech.” Other websites such as PinoyThinking have no bylines at all, only a timestamp.

If the byline is either absent or a pseudonym — and more importantly, not backed by an institution — there is little reason to trust the information.

 

“A news website should be accountable for what is posted on its page, and it starts with identifying the people behind it, as well as how they can be contacted so they can be asked to explain errors posted in their sites, among others,” the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility says.

Clones in similar websites, copying from legitimate news sources

According to “A Field Guide to Fake News,” a collaboration of Public Data Lab and First Draft, “successful fake news stories always appear on several webpages.” To fully analyze the impact of mis-and disinformation, it’s not enough to focus merely on content, but where and how these articles circulate. The field guide proposes that “it is precisely the character of this online circulation and reception that makes something into fake news.” (Italics theirs.) It adds that ‘fake news’ often take a viral character, and is often disseminated through viral pages that disseminate clickbait content.

An example may be made of an article published both in PinoyThinking and Netcitizen.co regarding a drug-related statement made by activist priest Fr. Robert Reyes. Both articles, citing GMA News as its source, are essentially copies of each other, published in seemingly different platforms with independent reach. Website PinoyThinking has around 170,000 followers on Facebook, while Netcitizen.co has around 48,000 followers. Both are frequently cited by various community pages.

A ‘public energized by fake news’

The mis- and disinformation ecosystem cannot be sustained without audiences who make it come alive, especially in a cycle of creation and consumption that capitalizes on certain themes, most of the time, political. A scan of the headlines contained in the websites above reveals recurring talking points: the drug war, several officials who oppose the president (such as Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Sen. Antonio Trillanes, and Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales) and even the proliferation of ‘fake news,’ also popular among many public groups on Facebook.

A Field Guide to Fake News.jpg Public Data Lab's "A Field Guide to Fake News" seeks to investigate the production, circulation, and reception of 'fake news' online. Image from PUBLIC DATA LAB/TWITTER

To look at 'fake news' articles is also to look at the phenomenon of “trolling,” some of which constitute the cross-section of the public actively involved in circulating 'fake news' online. It is also worth examining whether 'fake news' is just propaganda dressed in new, social-media-age clothes.

It seems like looking at content is just the tip of the iceberg. First Draft and Public Data Lab’s field guide suggests a more comprehensive study on the ways the public “produces, circulates, and receives” 'fake news' online. For our part, we need to start asking better questions — What fuels 'fake news'? How do we spot them? How do we characterize “fakeness”? These focus more on engaging the phenomenon, rather than outrightly dismissing or shooting it down.

The websites mentioned above have been flagged as fake following guidelines from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, which published a list of ‘fake news’ websites similar to the ones above and, together with the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, runs Fakeblok: a plug-in that flags ‘fake news.’ Reference has also been made to the First Draft Coalition’s various resources on ‘fake news,’ especially the links included above.

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The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Vera Files, and Memebuster are just some of the various organizations that devise tools, bust ‘fake news,’ and provide learning resources to battle mis- and disinformation online. For more details on their efforts, visit their respective websites.