What is Fake News?
Fake news (false or misleading news) can spread through different publishing media, including media and news outlets or social media websites. Fake news is usually created for misleading, causing damage, or making gaining material or political profits. This paper discusses false and misleading news, the difficulties of news verification, the tools that can be used for verifying and scrutinizing news, and the initiatives active in this area.
Many research institutes and media outlets have worked, throughout the last years, on setting definitions and patterns of fake (false, or misleading) news. The New York Times defines fake news as a kind of tabloid journalism or propaganda, consisting of intentional misleading scams that spread through the traditional press and radio, or the Internet on social media websites.
According to The Guardian, the ease with which the revenues of online advertising can be retrieved, the increase in political polarization, and the popularity of social media tools, were all involved in the spread of fake news. The ethical journalism network defines fake news as a piece of news intentionally fabricated and published for the purpose of deceiving somebody and leading them into believing lies or questioning facts. Fake news is often spread for make-believe and persuasion, for the purpose of gaining profits or achieving goals, or to highlight specific stances. Some politicians might resort to fake news to promote their agendas or projects by misleading public opinion, by spreading false ideas among citizens, with the help of PR agencies specialized in political propaganda, or so-called “electronic committees”, “electronic flies” or “electronic armies” that work on promoting ideas and dominating virtual reality.
Classifications of Fake News
The three main types of fake news as classified by Rubin, Chen, and Conroy (2015) are sensational news, humorous fake news, and large-scale scandals. Sensational news consists of exaggerated and unverified headlines that are made to attract large audiences through clickbait. On the other hand, large-scale scandals are designed to look like formal journalistic content. Through this technique, it is possible to disguise misinformation are real content and make audiences believe that it is truthful. Furthermore, humorous fake news is created in the guise of journalistic content. Rather than confusing the public, the objective of humorous fake news is to make fun of topical issues. After comprehensively studying scientific studies available on misinformation, Tandoc, Lim, and Ling (2018) extended the classification of fake news to six types: news satire, news parody, news fabrication, and photo manipulation. News satire is the most common example utilized in spaces and humorous programs, while some of the characteristics of news satire mirror those of news satire. However, the main difference is that news parody is not premised on topical issues, but is rather made up of fictional elements ad hoc. News fabrication is the content published without any foundation, attempting to imitate the information the legitimate media publishes. Finally, photo manipulation, unlike the other types that focus predominantly on textual content, relates to changing videos and photographs to create a fictional reality.
Where and When Does Fake News Spread?
A study carried out by a group of researchers at MIT, in the USA, has shown that fake news spread on Twitter faster and reaches more people compared to true news. The study has also found that bots are not the most responsible for the spread of fake news, as people spread more inaccurate news and false information. The study worked on 126,000 tweets, published by 3 million users of Twitter, for 10 years, as it depended on exclusive data provided to MIT by Twitter.
The study concluded that false information spread over social media means many times more than true news. It also pointed out that it will not be easy to create a system for verifying the news, as social networks with current technologies cannot boost the value of true news, especially as “the attractiveness of false news and rumors pumps up their contents making them more prone to spreading.” The study has also pointed out that political fake news “is always the most favorite for most people.” Fake stories become 6 folds more widespread than true stories.
Fact-Checking: Response of the Media against Fake News
To counteract the increasing presence of fake news, the strategy that the media deployed was fact-checking and verification of information. The aim is to enhance knowledge by researching and reporting purported facts. This is achieved by correcting the main mistakes that were previously perceived as insignificant. When misinformation spreads throughout the public, fact-checkers have the role of refuting and correcting mistakes in order to protect the public from being subjected to erroneous perceptions.
Graves (2016) emphasizes that one of the first fact-checking references was Snopes.com, a specialized website, created in 1995 at a period when online media was increasingly becoming popular. Since this period, the number of projects and initiatives focusing solely on information verification has increased significantly, thus strengthening fact-checking as a movement for revitalizing the concept of truthfulness, an important principle of journalism since it started.
According to a study carried out in 2019, by the International Center for Journalists, in collaboration with George Town University, journalists have turned lately to technology to face the difficult challenges of fake news spread. The study covered 14 languages, and its researchers obtained 4100 responses from journalists and news managers in 149 countries. The responses were divided among 8 regions across the globe: Southeast Asia, Eurasia/the former USSR, Europe, Latin America/the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Some of the study findings are:
- More than 50% of the journalists in the study regularly use technology tools for verifying information and seeking the truth. Digital verification proved to be the most in use.
- One-third of the news institutions have dedicated employees for fact-checking. 44% of the newsrooms and 37% of the journalists have taken part in activities related to information verification and facts checking.
- Twice as many journalists use fact-checking tools on social media networks.
- The study found that 75% of news managers feel worried about the effect of false information on true news, while less than 50% of the journalists said that false information affects their daily work.
In addition, at the beginning of 2019, a study carried out by the University of Duke’s Reporters Lab identified 160 active fact-checking projects globally. The projects are connected to both independent and established media outlets with multi-platform presence. The rise in the number of verification projects and initiatives is linked to the presence of a transnational journalism movement that has linked practitioners from a plethora of media systems and journalistic cultures, and various political or civil spheres. Fact-checkers are journalists who seek to clarify false information by checking the original sources. To achieve this objective, fact-checkers depend on the most basic rules of journalism. Nonetheless, there are numerous technological tools designed for the analysis and contrast of all forms of content databases, videos, and images.
News Verification Mechanisms and Resources
Since fake news mainly spread through certain technological companies, including Meta, Twitter, TikTok, and Google, it is imperative to study the mechanisms and initiatives that these companies have put in place to halt the circulation of fake news within their spaces. The collaboration and decisions of tech companies are crucial for fighting misinformation since they can modify the actions of online content publishers, both misleading and truthful ones.
Google published a report dubbed How Google fights Discrimination in early 2019. The report warns about the vulnerabilities and dangers of the Internet as a repercussion of the ease of sharing content online which is entirely devoid of truth. Through the report, Google acknowledges that its algorithms cannot ascertain the accuracy of a specific content or understand the intentions of the said content’s promoters. Notwithstanding, the company argues that they are coming up with initiatives and measures for detecting and hiding searches for false information. In this regard, Google has reported that it is easy to identify fact-checkers by examining both Google News Service and their search engine. In addition, Google News Initiative is considered one of the most important open-source tools that journalists depend on for news verification. The initiative depends on Google’s tools like the Google search engine, YouTube, Google Chrome, Google Earth, and Google Translate, for verifying the news exchanged on social media websites.
Facebook has commenced rolling out various tools to aid in the reduction of the circulation of fake news on its platform.
In 2016, Facebook developed a fact-checking initiative in collaboration with associations such as media outlets, including Snopes.com, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the International Fact-checking Network. This collaboration enables Facebook to warn users of content that media outlets that specialize in verification have identified as likely being false. The initiative’s work falls into four areas. The first area is easier reporting, where Facebook seeks to make it easier to report a hoax after one sees one on Facebook. The second area is flagging stories as disputed as a way of enabling people to decide for themselves what they want to trust and share. As a result, Facebook has initiated a program to collaborate with third-party fact-checking companies that have ratified Poynter’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles. Poynter Institute in collaboration with the American Institute of Journalism has created a training program specially designed for journalism students and professors to help future and current journalists verify fake news. The free training that lasts for 90 minutes familiarizes the trainees with the nature of the data that should be checked, the questions that should be asked while verifying news, and the tools needed. Facebook states that it will use its community’s reports together with other signals to send stories to these firms. After flagging a story, neither can it become an ad nor can it be promoted. The third area is informed sharing. When an article is read and people are less likely to share it, Facebook believes that the community is telling them that it may be a sign that the story has misled them. The final area of the fact-checking initiative is the disruption of financial initiatives for spammers. Since a lot of fake news is financially motivated, Facebook believes that spammers make money by pretending to be well-known news organizations and posting hoaxes that influence people to visit their websites. To fix this, it has gotten rid of the ability to spoof domains on the buying side. On the publisher side, the company is conducting an analysis of publisher websites to detect where there might be a need for policy enforcement actions.
Closure of Automated Accounts
The other measure that Facebook has taken against the spread of misinformation is the closure of automated accounts. For example, in 2016, it closed more than 30,000 automated accounts in the UK and France prior to the elections. Such automated accounts are deployed for spreading misinformation and are quite frequent. They are also very effective in disseminating rumors, particularly the ones related to presidential elections in different countries.
Automated bots and the ease through which they can be programmed poses some of the major threats to the integrity of content published on the platform. Thus, Twitter has focused on content management. This has been through attempting to control the creation of automated tools which seek to disseminate numerous publications within a short period. During the last few years, Twitter has rolled out various mechanisms geared towards detecting whether content has been published by a bot or not. In case Twitter detects duplicated activity or large-scale circulation of content through automated accounts, it begins conducting an investigation. In case the massive publication violates the platform’s policy, Twitter deletes all its accounts.
International Fact-checking Day
International Fact-checking Day is held every year on 2 April as an annual celebration and rallying cry for more truth in everyday life, public health, and journalism. The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) in partnership with fact-checking organizations around the world promotes the International Fact-Checking Day. The IFCN states that the role of debunking false information should not be left to only professional fact-checkers since everyone has a role to play in elevating facts for a healthy information ecosystem. In addition, the IFCN has a database for improving misinformation literacy, with resources from across the world and in various languages. The IFCN EduCheck Map features 200 various resources, projects, and investigations tailored to students, the general public, and news reporters.
International Journalists Center
The International Journalists Center also provides online training courses for verifying news and publishing them for journalists all over the world. It empowers a unique global network of journalists to enable them to produce news reports devoid of misinformation. By developing the storytelling skills and expertise of reporters globally, it seeks to ensure that they have adequate knowledge for increasing the flow of reliable, trustworthy news. Its ability to spread media innovation results in many startups and new tools for better storytelling. More critically, its International Journalists’ Network, published in eight languages, has played a critical role in enriching media professionals with the latest technology trends that are critical for news verification and fact-checking.
This free website enables users to check the extent to which an image has been edited. Through inputting a URL or dragging in a photo, the service offers rapid metadata analysis, digital fingerprints, and color adjustment. This website is also a critical resource since it has tutorials for helping first-time users to comprehend the results.
This is a free Firefox and Chrome browser extension that provides a breakdown of the ingredients making up a news article, in the same way that food labels offer dietary information on food items’ packaging. It is informed by user ratings towards accuracy, spin, trust, along other categories. It offers author and publisher information, and any third-party checks that have been completed on the article from sources such as factcheck.org or Snopes.
To hasten the fact-checking process, Check, an open source platform, created an automated workflow for debunking claims by responding to verification requests on private messaging applications. All the verified claims are logged in a database that can then be utilized for responding automatically to duplicate or similar tips, thus enabling journalists and other fact-checkers to focus on debunking unverified and new claims.
Guides and Initiatives for Fact-Checking the News
- PolitiFact’s Guide to Fake News Sites – United States
- Restoring Trust News Integrity Initiative – United States (with global partners)
- The Trust Project — United States
- Trusting News (Reynolds Journalism Institute) — United States
- CNN’s website has also provided a number of steps for verifying fake news on Facebook. Ida2at website translated these steps to Arabic in an article titled “Your Comprehensive Guide to Fake News Verification on Facebook.”
- The Le Mond newspaper has created a tool named DECODEX to help distinguish true information from fake ones according to news sources. Websites addresses can be entered then DECODEX will answer if the website is trusted or not.
- Liberation newspaper has also launched Check News, where a direct inquiry can be answered by the Désintox service journalists to reveal what is true and what is not.
Arab Platforms Fighting Fake News
- Saheeh Masr depends on correcting false information included in press statements of officials or correcting some of the statements that were wrongfully promoted either on purpose or unintentionally by explaining the contexts of these statements.
- Akhbar Meter is based in Egypt and depends on scrutinizing and correcting professional mistakes in journalist reports issued by different kinds of media outlets. The platform also publishes its recommendations for what journalists should do while working on their reports.
- Da Begad works on correcting false news and revealing fake photos that are published on a large scale for spreading misleading news and information through social media networks and websites.
- In Jordan, the independent platform Misbar works on correcting misleading news and information. Both Akeed and Fatabyyano work in a similar way.
- In Algeria Fake News DZ platform corrects false news published by traditional media and wrongful methods of guiding the Algerian public opinion.
News Verification Tools and Techniques
Geo and Mapping
Google Earth can help journalists to visualize the geographical elements of a story. One can browse through a large three-dimensional library and embed placemarks, and highlight the areas they are interested in. In addition, the Timelapse feature can enable a journalist or news reporter to view satellite imagery dating back to 1984; quite beneficial for visualizing changes over time. The Google Earth Studio can also enable journalists to use all features for creating broadcast-quality animations and videos of timelining events, locator maps, b-roll, and establishing shots.
Google Advanced Search
The starting point for many journalists is usually Google Search as they research a story. However, there are various tools that can help enhance journalists’ search efforts, including Google Advanced Search. Rather than typing paragraph-long search queries that yield less beneficial results, a journalist can leverage search refinements to narrow the search scope and get more of what they are looking for. The recently announced research tool called Pinpoint can enable them to quickly peruse hundreds of thousands of documents by automatically identifying and organizing the most frequently mentioned locations, people, and organizations.
Fact Check Explorer
Google’s Fact Check Explorer enables journalists to easily search and browse for fact checks. For example, a journalist can search for a politician’s statement or a particular topic and limit results to a specific publisher. Reverse image search can enable journalists to see when or where certain images have shown up online and the images related to a specific photo. Google Street View is a tool for confirming where a video or photo was captured. Through virtually visiting a location, a journalist can match up visual clues, including architecture, signage, and road markings.
This free online tool determines the credibility of an article based on feedback submitted by users and verified journalists. It allows users to rank individual articles between one star and five stars, and indicate whether an article was mistaken, biased, or credible. This provides an idea of whether an article found online can be trusted, and along with its partner program, it can also be used to receive feedback from readers and signal the credibility of an outlet to new readers.
Other news verification tools and techniques are briefly described below:
- The Verification Handbook is considered one of the most important handbooks that explain the user-created content verification process rules. It offers a large number of varied tools that help journalists verify photos and videos.
- AIDR platform for rumors falsification on Twitter.
- The PeaopleBrowser platform allows monitoring and collecting news and social media events as per time and place, and filtering this news per reliability.
- Snopes website reveals fake news spread online and can be used for verifying user-created content.
- One of the most important websites that help journalists verify photos is Tineye, izitru, and google images.
- A journalist can verify a video by using YouTube Data viewer, created by AMNESTY.
- Jeffrey’s Image Metadata Viewer application for extracting photos’ data. It is used for revealing descriptive data of photos like size, place, and date of shooting. Another similar application is Extract Meta Data.
- Fotoforensics website is used for exposing tampering with photos and clarifies it by coloring the altered areas.
- Watch Frame by Frame website for watching videos clearly in slow-motion so the video’s data and details can be thoroughly examined.
- Truepic application on iPhone and Android can be used for verifying photos and videos for free.
Future of News Verification
Fake news is poised to become more prevalent and complex as more people embrace technology and use social media websites. Blockchain could be used in the future as a tool for combating fake news. Renowned for enabling the exchange of cryptocurrencies including bitcoin, blockchain-based systems could also be pivotal for the future of journalism. More specifically, this emerging technology could ultimately enable newsrooms to build public trust while enhancing financial sustainability. Organizations and individuals can use blockchain for permanently storing and tracking records of digital communications and online transactions. This is because the information in a blockchain can be easily tracked and authenticated back to the source, making it easier for journalists to verify that a specific story was published by the stated author, hence potentially preventing the spread of hoax news articles.
Numerous experiments continue happening globally, while some have already proven successful, including Verified Pixel which automates much of the work in image verification. Verified Pixel particularly brings numerous verification tools, including TinEye, and Google Reverse Image Search. Thus, the future of news verification and fact-checking is automation.
Perhaps, there will be a future fact-checking element to posting on social networking sites, where an alert may pop up in case someone is about to share a fake image or even a factually incorrect claim. While all these are mere predictions, we look forward to a seamless, fast, and accurate news fact-checking and verification process that can enable journalists to enhance the trustworthiness and authenticity of news and information.