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28.04.2017

"This is my truth - tell me yours" - the forensics of fake news

by Jane Whyatt

You probably remember the phrase, “This is my truth – tell me yours!“ Its history reminds us that fake news is not new and that politics is a battle of beliefs.

Books fake news_900X600 Everything you wanted to know about fake news but were too afraid to ask. (Photo: ECPMF)

The phrase is well known to 1990s pop music fans, the title of a hit album by Manic Street Preachers.They took it from a famous speech by the late Welsh socialist politician Aneurin Bevan. He opposed German rearmament in the 1930s and founded the UK’s National Health Service.

Why is it relevant today?

Political propaganda has existed for centuries. Generations of voters have either swallowed it as palatable or rejected it at the ballot box. We understand that election promises and attempts to smear rival candidates are just part of the campaign, not gospel truth.

But perhaps we need to be more vigilant than ever, with the power of the internet.

The current moral panic about fake news flared up as part of the 2016 presidential elections. US intelligence agencies reported that they had evidence that smear stories were spread virally through social media by Russian-backed hackers aiming to influence the election results.

President-elect Donald Trump met the outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to discuss the claims – but did not accept them. The Russian media is rubbishing the claims, as well. Senate committees are still investigating.

Worse still, some fake stories were made by young men in the Western Balkans who were just trying to make a fast buck through Google Adwords. Now these same platforms have switched their attention to the election in France, according to Wired magazine.

No matter the motivations behind them, these interventions could change the world in a time of shifting political power.

Researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald E. Robinson reported to the American National Academy of Science that Google’s algortihms could shift 20% or more of undecided voters’ preferences. It‘s what they call the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME).

Who are the lead players?

Google, Facebook, hacking and leaks by foreign powers - these new commercially-driven or politically-motivated technological developments make propaganda an even more powerful weapon.

It can bypass the checks and balances of traditional journalism. It is delivered straight to the individual’s personal news feed.

ECPMF and Future Media Lab

The original version of this article was published on 27 April, 2017, on the blog of the Future Media Lab (FML). ECPMF project manager Jane Whyatt will be speaking at the 7th annual Future Media Lab conference, taking place in Brussels on 2 May, as well as joining a World Café session they are organising on 3 May. For more details, click here and here.

And from there, it often provokes an instant response of Like, Share or Re-tweet.

In response to the perceived threat from Russia, leaders from the EU and NATO have founded a new research centre: the European Centre for Excellence in Countering Hybrid Threats. It was inaugurated in Helsinki on 11 April by the Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who "admits: “Finland, too, is a target for hybrid influencing. For example, we are constantly dealing with information campaigns and malicious activities in the cyber domain.“

In the UK, the spy centre GCHQ’s Ciaran Martin has written to political parties warning of the risks from foreign interference in Britain’s general election campaign. Even without external intrusions, the 2016 Brexit referendum raised concern,too, about home-grown attempts to pollute the electoral process with false claims.

An example of this was the pro-Leave battlebus that toured the nation with a spurious claim that healthcare would benefit from a 350 million pound boost if UK left the EU. After the election, the Greenpeace campaign bought the bus and re-branded it.

But in the end, the best defence against propaganda and fake news is an alert, well-informed public that understands it. I believe there are two ways to achieve this: We need more support for quality journalism. And we need more education for the general public, teaching them how to spot fakes and call them out, rather than simply liking and sharing.


Get engaged

At the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, we are planning a conference on 13-14 June in Leipzig, Germany, to confront these twin challenges. In debates and workshops, journalists, politicians and technologists will present the latest thinking on countering lies, fact-checking and video verification. Email conference@ecpmf.eu to book your free place at this event.



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