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We’ve all done it: we’ve seen a dramatic and outrageous tweet or Facebook post purporting to reveal what a minister has said, or giving news of a catastrophe of some kind and reposted or retweeted. Later, we’ve had to eat a little humble pie after finding out that the post or tweet we shared was, in fact, fake news.
By the time the realisation sets in, though, the damage is already done. Take, for example, the shocking news that emerged in 2013 that an explosion had occurred at the White House, injuring Barack Obama. After the tweet was shared more than 4 000 times, stock prices on the US stock markets began to drop with $130 billion lost in stock value.
“Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looked at 126 000 stories that were circulating around the internet. They looked at 3 million accounts between 2006 and 2017 and what they found was that the fake news spread faster than the truth. The sensational nature of a lot of these stories is what makes them more likely to be retweeted,” says Indi Siriniwasa, Vice President of Trend Micro, Sub-Saharan Africa.
The intrepid MIT researchers also discovered that fake news will spread like wildfire between 1 000 to 10 000 Twitter users. The truth, however, could take six times longer to reach only 1 500 people.
These days one would assume that bots are being used to perpetuate fake news. This is not the case: humans spread fake news more fake news than any bots can. False political news was found to spread the fastest compared to news on terrorism, natural disasters, science or finance.
“Fake news can be seen as cyber propaganda and it shows no sign of slowing down. Fake news is used to influence opinions, discredit people in various industries, and of course, there is money in it. There are people who wish to run smear campaigns or who will benefit from the results of the propaganda, and there are people who are willing to be paid to make that happen,” Siriniwasa explains.
According to Trend Micro’s research, there is an underground marketplace for cyber propaganda, with discrediting a journalist costing US$ 55 000 and creating a celebrity with 300 000 followers going for as little as US$ 2 600. Ultimately, we as the readers of fake news, are the machine that keeps it growing.
“Think before you retweet or repost. There are developments going on in the background to provide a “trust indicator” to perhaps filter out the fake news. Until then, the onus is on the user, or the reader, to be the first line of defence. Exaggerated headlines are a giveaway. If the article can’t cite trustworthy sources, it is very likely fake. Check the facts. It’s best to get your news from established and reputable news authorities. Let the buck stop with you,” Siriniwasa advises.