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The impact of fake news

Part of our series on tackling erosion of trust and the spread of fake news

Fake news has been around as long as human civilisation, but it has been turbo-charged by digital technology and the transformation of the global media landscape. Nevertheless, defenders of fact and truth still have weapons to help uphold integrity in the social, political and economic environments.

Politicians have undoubtedly been stretching the truth, and indeed downright lying, since the birth of Athenian democracy 2,500 years ago, according to David Schrieberg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who now heads VitalBriefing, a provider of curated news for corporate clients. In the 8th century, a forged imperial decree purportedly issued centuries before by the Emperor Constantine was used by the papacy to justify its claim to possession of lands across the western Roman Empire.

While in the past untruths and distortions of fact and history were successfully disseminated through word of mouth, manuscripts and even tapestries, modern technology has created new vectors – starting with radio. Fake news – albeit inadvertently – threw Americans into a panic in the 1930s when listeners to Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds believed that an alien invasion was underway. So what makes the phenomenon different, and more dangerous, today ? The advent of digital media has played a critical role in ‘democratising’ fake news and untrue or misleading information, according to Tom Glocer, a former Reuters CEO who is now managing partner of Angelic Ventures, a family office investing in fintech, media, big data and healthcare, as well as a member of the Linklaters International Advisory Group. “Technology has now made it so easy to create what even a few decades ago required a large investment, whether access to printing presses, studios or broadcast transmitters,” he says.

“Technology has now made it so easy to create what even a few decades ago required a large investment, whether access to printing presses, studios or broadcast transmitters.”

“Now, with a laptop at home and a decent HTML stylesheet, I can create a newspaper from scratch – let’s call it the Denver Gazette. While the Denver Gazette does not exist – unlike the Denver Post – I can make it look good, especially for just a snippet quoted in a Facebook or Twitter feed. People who already believe in a certain set of facts are not going to spend the time to verify the actual source, or decide whether it is a brand they trust.”

Mr Schrieberg first came across fake news as a foreign correspondent in Latin America in the 1990s. Pervasive rumours in Mexico and Guatemala that babies were being kidnapped for their body parts to be transplants for the children of rich Americans, were fanned by Soviet disinformation specialists; it turned out to have been sparked by a newspaper story in Honduras three years earlier.

The Vote Leave promise of £350m a week

Today the focus is on the role of disinformation in the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union in June 2016 and the US presidential election later that year. The single most memorable image of the Brexit referendum campaign was the Vote Leave ‘battle bus’ carrying a message claiming that quitting the EU would free up £350 million a week that could be invested in Britain’s National Health Service. In fact Britain’s largest-ever net yearly contribution to the EU, in 2014, was equivalent to less than £100 million. Says Mr Schrieberg: “People were swayed by simplistic message, which we’ve seen too in the US, in an age when we are constantly battered by information and are not necessarily sourcing that information as we should. The drive toward simple solutions and simple analyses rather than going deep into issues that require deep thinking is a temptation that is fed by the internet.”

A generation ago, information that appeared in print enjoyed a certain legitimacy whatever the source, but today, he says, people tend to trust and believe those closest to themselves, and end up in their own echo chamber. The danger lies in the ease of falsifying online content, from plausible but imaginary newspaper web sites to photoshopping images and using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create ‘deep fake’ video footage for political or other purposes.

Do ways exist to ensure people can distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t ? Mr Glocer sees the best answer in a combination of machines and humans: “Technology gives as well as takes away. People are becoming very sophisticated in their ability to verify video – what natural shadow would be created, how does fur or hair move in chaotic wind events ? But as with cyber-defences, as soon as someone comes up with a verifying algorithm, the same technology is incorporated into ever more sophisticated fakes, so you’re never done.”

He also commends the idea of an assessment system for news sources, much like nutrition labels or bond ratings, launched by a start-up called NewsGuard. It uses experienced journalists to measure media according to criteria including their policies on retraction and fact-checking, differentiating between news and opinion, and between editorial and advertising content. “Because we live in a short attention span world and there is a premium on screen real estate, it uses green icons to indicate sites that follow basic standards of accuracy and accountability, like the Denver Post, and red for those that do not, like the Denver Gazette,” Mr Glocer says.

Open-source journalism to fill the investigative void

But some pillars of truthful news have crumbled, perhaps forever. The traditional media outlets that would be willing to spend weeks and months in pursuit of a complex but important story have seen their resources sapped by the shift of advertising online. At the same time that science-based investigation has become the target of political attacks, deep expertise has become a luxury that many publications feel they can no longer afford.

However, to some degree the void is being filled by new types of journalism. Aliaume Leroy, an open-source investigative journalist with BBC Africa Eye as well as a member of the Bellingcat investigation team, says digital tools and online sources are providing journalists with the ability to uncover the truth and contradict fake news – even if their painstaking methods echo the methodical approach of the “shoe-leather” reporters of times past.

“But with a bit of time, curiosity, persistence, and a critical eye to keep questioning yourself, it is a first and very important step to debunk false information.”

Last year Mr Leroy and his colleagues uncovered the perpetrators of the execution of two women and two children in West Africa, after a video was circulated on social media. Using elements of the video images, such as the surrounding landscape, the shadows cast by the perpetrators and the equipment they carried, the investigators were able to contradict assertions by the Cameroon government that its soldiers were not responsible.

They placed the scene of the killings just inside the country’s border, narrowed the date of the incident to three weeks in March-April 2015, and identified the individuals involved by comparison with social media images, leading to their subsequent arrest. Says Mr Leroy: “We could have just listened to what the government said and thought, we don’t have time to investigate this. But with a bit of time, curiosity, persistence, and a critical eye to keep questioning yourself, it is a first and very important step to debunk false information.” In Europe at least, the political authorities are alert to the dangers of fake news. Nicki Kayser, partner in charge of the capital markets and banking group at Linklaters Luxembourg, notes that Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for the digital economy and society, has warned that the entire democratic process could be in jeopardy.

The Commission has put forward an action plan to improve the detection, analysis and exposure of disinformation, involving both human and automated fact-checkers, and launched a code of practice signed by internet giants Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla. However, a key focus is education of the population to raise our awareness of fake news and improve resilience in society by boosting understanding and raising awareness of tools used to deal with it

When companies are vulnerable to false information

Fake news is not just a political problem, though. Sarah Wiggins, a corporate partner with Linklaters London, says companies can be especially vulnerable to false information, particularly in connection with M&A activity or litigation, because of the speed with which it can spread. This can be up to six times faster than ‘normal’ news, propelled by instant messaging and in particular dissemination not by individuals but networks of bots, which typically account for 25% of total traffic.

How to respond can vary on the circumstances. “Sometimes a fake news story can be quite straightforward to deal with,” Ms Wiggins says. “A few years ago, a hoax press release said that a French construction company had fired its CFO and its financial statements would have to be restated. It was totally untrue, and the company successfully refuted the reports within 25 minutes.”

But when BP was dealing with the oil spill that followed the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the company took the decision not to tackle a fake Twitter account which was spreading misinformation and satire about the situation. A BP spokesman reflected: “People are entitled to their views on what we’re doing... we are doing the best we can to deal with the current situation and try to stop the oil from flowing and clean it up.”

“Fake news is not new, it has been around for centuries, but the technical tools that exist today, coupled with increasing distrust of the mainstream media, have proved to be logarithmic multipliers of the potential of false information.”

While the instinct of business leaders may be to respond rapidly to rebut fake news, she cautions that sometimes they need to be restrained by their communications experts. “What a company doesn’t want to do, particularly one listed on a stock market, is issue information that turns out to be incorrect,” Ms Wiggins says. Depending on the circumstances, she adds, a response that appeals to the emotions, perhaps through humour, may be more effective than a dry legal statement.

Mr Kayser is hopeful that greater understanding of the problem can lead to better solutions. He says: “Fake news is not new, it has been around for centuries, but the technical tools that exist today, coupled with increasing distrust of the mainstream media, have proved to be logarithmic multipliers of the potential of false information. Technical and content-based solutions may not enable us to control the phenomenon completely, but at least they can mitigate its impact on our societies.”


Fake News: From science fiction to echo chambers

How did we get here? In a world of instant access to information and endless connectivity, we are now seeing unprecedented levels of fake news, fuelling disruption and discontent and undermining trust. But fake news is not a recent phenomenon, as this video explains.


Fake News and the role of technology

In this short video, Thomas H. Glocer, Founder and Managing Partner, Angelic Ventures, LP, gives his thoughts on how technology is playing a major role in accelerating and disseminating news.


Fake news: How to repair trust?

David Schrieberg, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, CEO and Co-Founder of Vital Briefing describes the key factors that are driving fake news and what steps can be taken to protect ourselves from the divisive impact of disinformation.


Fake News and crisis management strategies

In today’s global media environment, fake news can jeopardise the stability of businesses. Watch Sarah Wiggins, Partner, Corporate M&A, Linklaters LLP London as she shares her view on how to respond properly to external hazards.


Fake News: Uncovering fabricated stories

Aliaume Leroy, an investigative journalist from Bellingcat, tells us more about open source investigation tools and techniques to identify false information and how we can safeguard against it.


Fake News: How can we fight back?

Nicki Kayser, Partner Capital Markets and Banking, Linklaters LLP Luxembourg, discusses how fake news is quickly and easily spread and the importance of ensuring the source is reputable.