I Got Fake People Showing Fake News to Me

Spreading fake news is not a new phenomenon. What is new, is how changes in technology contributes to the acceleration and the extent of how news are spread worldwide only in seconds, to millions of readers. As someone so appealing put it “a spark can easily lead to a full-blown forest fire.”

Fake news is since the US presidential election in 2017, a well-used term in many contexts, not at least related to both social and traditional media. The discussion has especially moved around issues of credibility of facts. How can we for example trust that what we read in the media is true? And how can we be confident in that the statements made by various world leaders, is correctly recited in its correct context? Credibility in media is strongly connected to source criticism and thus became a major challenge. It is not just about finding information, but also to find information that is reliable and accurate. Fact checking is crucial to hinder false news to have an impact and undermine the credibility of what is written.

As a media consumer and social media user, news found and spread online is often what is used to create a debate. People’s opinions are as often based on what media is reporting on and what we see online, captioned as news articles, affect how we feel, think and form understanding about societal matters.

From a postmodern perspective assuming that everything is constructed on the basis of social relations and mediated through communicative interactions, it is interesting to discuss how social changes rapidly is communicated among people. Social change through internet may sound positive. But some of the media activism circling today is everything other than progressive.

One example of how fake news was rapidly spread is how immigration is breaking Sweden, or as Swedish journalist Erik Helmersson from DN (Dagens Nyheter) describes it: “the news caught up, got wings and through a Macedonian village flew out over the world and was met by hundreds of thousands of hungry clicks”.

Not so long ago you could read in the Swedish press about how some drug addicts had behaved very badly in a church in the Swedish city Kristianstad. Helmersson describes how the news on the way transformed the drug addicts to “Muslims” or possibly “Romanian people” and when the news was written about in the Swedish media, the starting point was that it was European migrants who were responsible for what had happened in the church. Helmersson is highly critical of how the so-called news turned and stresses that “it is the individual who is guilty of the crime, not the person’s skin color, gender or ethnicity.”

Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) told the story about the Macedonian internet trolls spreading lies mainly to the US audience, and get advertising revenues. The story about how Sweden is desecrated by Muslim immigrants was greeted with a click rain. That it’s not true, is irrelevant. “There is no reason to doubt it,” says a mother of two children in the story. The thing is- there is, and we should. Nothing should be spread without doubt.

Besides the prejudiced lack of doubt, there is another very unpleasant feature in the history of Kristianstad brought up in the article: people’s desire to link actions with groups. “Who destroyed the church? Addicts, Roma or what?” asks a reader on DN’s Facebook page. “The answer is that it was an individual. Although group psychology can promote vile acts, it’s almost always a single person who commits atrocities. But some love to blame the group: Muslims, beggars, men, drug users, migrants. Others group fixation leads to the opposite extreme. We all have a great responsibility to stop this dangerous polarization.”[1] [2]

Another recent example of fake news is the story about Nils Bildt, the Swedish expert on defense and national security who commented on problems caused by criminality in Swedish cities and suburbs in Fox News. Only problem? Neither the Swedish Defense Ministry nor Foreign Office had ever heard of the expert. The never heard of expert called for an “open and honest debate on crime”, but also happened to have been previously convicted of a violent offence in the United States.

It was after President Trump’s statements about Sweden, based on a report from Fox News, the debate about the country started to kick off in the United States. Sweden was described as “a nation plagued by crime and rape, in large part due to immigration”. Nils Bildt, interviewed in Bill O’Reilly’s show, confirmed Trump’s negative statements, where he among other things said that Swedish politicians ”has absolutely no systematic plan for integrating mass amounts of immigrants to become productive members of society” and that ”There is a problem with crime, there is a problem with areas or hotpost of crime, be it in Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm or the suburbs thereof and these things are not openly discussed” as well as that ”The Swedish political debate is completely false. If you don’t agree with the liberal, common agenda you are viewed as an outsider and not taken seriously.”

The Swedish Defence Ministry said no one of the name Nils Bildt works there, and that nobody there knows who he is. Nils Bildt’s answer to this?

”I appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. The title was chosen by Fox News’s editor – I had no personal control over what title they chose. I am an independent analyst based in the USA”, he wrote in an email to DN. He also said he is unaware of the crime allegations and therefore cannot comment on that. Fox News further gave their view on the issue in another email to DN, where the producer of the network’s news show The O’Reilly Factor, David Tabacoff, states that David Tabacoff, says: ”Our booker made numerous inquiries and spoke to people who recommended Nils Bildt and after pre-interviewing him and reviewing his bio, we agreed that he would make a good guest for the topic that evening.”[3]

Sites with fake news that reaches a large audience, not seldom containing Islam hostile content, have created a debate, especially after the presidential election in November. Many of the sites run entirely by commercial reasons, many from Macedonia, where young people see them as an easy way to earn money on clicks and ads.

Another example is the site Donald Trump News. On October 29 last year, it spread false information that Sweden would have banned Christmas lights in the streets not to offend Muslim refugees. In fact, it was the Swedish Transport Administration that had decided that the decorations would not get to hang from the lampposts, for completely different reasons. There was no such thing as a ban against Christmas lights. After the US election, several of the Internet’s giants, such as Google, promised to do what they could to stop the funding to fake sites, this by throwing them out of their ad networks. In late January, the company released a report in which they described how in 2016 revised the rules and clearly begun to “act against the site owners scrambling who they are or misleads readers by their content”. They state that in November and December 2016 closed 200 accounts because of corrupted content.

Though, getting money for creating fake sites and spreading fake news is still a problem.[4]

Can this phenomenon be viewed as digital activism? If you look to Leah A. Lievrouw’s definintion, it somehow suits. In her definition, alternative and activist new media “employ or modify the communication artifacts, practices, and social arrangements of new information and communication technologies to challenge or alter dominant, expected, or accepted ways of doing society, culture and politics.”[5]

Is it that fake news is activist in that sense that it challenges traditional journalism, making use of the technology offered? Making your news feed selective, choosing what kind of news and what kind of media sources you want to see and read is fully possible online. In the same way I choose to “unfriend” people who share racist material on Facebook, there are of course people who work from the other way, finding and sharing racist “information” in terms of news, fake or not, and articles.

The fake news getting widely spread and taken up as political tools today open up for some interesting discussion topics. For example: What consequences does this have in a democratic society? Today, as well as yesterday and the day before that, the importance of teaching children/students about source criticism and democratic foundations need to be stressed. Those who uncritically spreading lies and half-truths also become, voluntarily or involuntarily, useful servants in the service of spreading fake news. Knowledge, scientific and source criticism is maybe more important than ever. Facts resistance is a major threat to our democratic enlightened society. Education could prepare students in a society where the facts of resistance, faked news and filter bubbles have become a growing social problem. It is important to highlight that Google and Facebook are actors in the society, and in our media landscape.

As a finishing note, the recent fake news debate created a few creative digital comebacks. One of the quite digital campains against Trump’s statements about Sweden, based on fake news was a Facebook event that went viral, inviting Danes in Copenhagen to gather together to mourn for Sweden and the Swedes. The same comment also sparked the hashtag #lastnightinsweden.

 

[1] http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/harifran-sprids-en-fejknyhet-om-vilka-som-skandat-en-kyrka-i-sverige/

[2] http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/from-this-basement-came-a-piece-of-fake-news-about-who-had-desecrated-a-church-in-sweden/

[3] http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/fake-sweden-expert-on-fox-news-has-criminal-convictions-in-us-no-connection-to-swedish-security/

[4] http://www.dn.se/arkiv/nyheter/annonspengar-fran-svenska-foretag-gar-till-fejksajterna/

[5] Lievrouw, Leah. A. 2006, ”New Media Design and Development: Diffusion of Innovations v Social Shaping of Technology” i Leah Lievrouw & Sonia Livingstone (red) Handbook of New Media, 2006, London: Sage Publications. Page 19

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/20/lastnightinsweden-celebrities-swedish-mock-donald-trumps-bizarre/

One Comment

  1. Adam

    Hi Elin, thanks for highlighting this urgent issue. You bring up a lot of telling examples, the Macedonia piece in DN being particularly interesting I think. I wanted to draw your attention to a post by a friend of mine, published here: https://medium.com/berkman-klein-center/fake-news-highlights-much-bigger-problems-at-play-9e419e4a6f52#.6y1bwdcmz

    I think they (two authors) pinpoint the difficulty in dealing with the fake news phenomenon. Do we legislate against it? Is labeling fake news on platforms like Facebook enough? Does it even work? Here’s a good excerpt from Andreas & Nani’s article:

    “Labelling content as fake news may help some to navigate the ecosystem of news, but it represents a shallow response to much larger underlying problems. Legislating against fake news may make its controversy disappear for a moment, but has a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression. Neither approach will help people figure out whom or what to trust. There are no easy or quick fixes, but if the ambition is to address fake news in all its forms, there is a need to focus on the underlying issues rather than prescribing symptomatic treatment. It will require us to go beyond scratching the surface of the deeper problems of our own bias and inability to reach across the aisle and find common ground with the people we disagree with.”

    Of course, the question of how to fight fake news is still left unanswered. I think you’re right in emphasizing the importance of source criticism in schools. We need to see a lot more of that, and in innovative ways too. For the past year, I’ve organized seminars on the media image of the Middle East in Swedish high schools, and noticed that educators need to become far more creative in terms of how they tackle sources and criticism. But it’s a demanding job, requiring that educators also engage with facts and theoretical debates. In order for young people to understand that a certain story is ‘fake’ or severely biased, I think they also need to form an understanding of the issue at hand. And that takes time (i.e. traditional classroom work). And if you think about it, most of the most infamous cases of fake news today are related to immigration, ethnic relations, etc. In that regard, we need to get back to the basics: educate children in Europe about e.g. Islamic societies, showing that what they see in the news and elsewhere isn’t the full picture – far from it. Today, there is very little activity in European schools that will allow students to form their own opinions about issues like migration, Islam, etc. The mainstream – or fringe – media is allowed to own the debate.

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