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Has the spread of political fake news changed the way social media operates?

schedule 24th October 2018 by Virtual College in Virtual College

man using a mobile phone

The proliferation of so-called "fake news" in the last year has had a major impact on the political landscape - but has also resulted in cyber security implications for social media platforms.

One of the most crucial aspects of any cyber security operation is taking a proactive approach to tackle new threats as and when they arise - especially when those threats emerge from unexpected places.

In 2017, one of the most high-profile new security trends was that of "fake news" - a term that few were familiar with 12 months ago, but has since played an instrumental role in reshaping the geopolitical landscape to such an extent that internet and social media companies are now scrambling to take action.

Many organisations are still trying to adjust to the new status quo, with the scale of their efforts to do so telling us much about the growing influence of online communication, and the challenges involved in making sure these digital environments are safe and secure.

What is "fake news"?

As the name suggests, the fake news trend pertains to the spread of false and often sensationalist information, presented under the guise of legitimate news reporting. Of course, the existence of such material is not a new development, but the methods through which it is being created and disseminated have seen rapid evolution in recent months.

Over the last year, there has been a marked increase in the number of politically-motivated fake news stories being distributed online, taking advantage of the shareability of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to spread virally. Creators of political fake news content are exploiting the biases of audiences who do not take the time to fact-check content that supports their existing beliefs and prejudices, allowing false narratives to take hold.

The fake news trend has been credited with playing a substantial role in Donald Trump's surprise victory in the 2016 US presidential election, while the use of bots to spread false information was also observed during the recent UK general election and Brexit referendum.

Is the problem on the rise?

According to a study from Stanford University, fake news websites received 159 million visits during the month of the 2016 US election, with the veracity of many of the most widely-shared pro-Trump news stories called into question.

Meanwhile, data from Freedom House indicates that as many as 30 governments paid so-called "opinion shapers" to promote potentially misleading propaganda content online, with the Russian government frequently cited as chief perpetrators. As a result of this, public trust in the content they read through both social and traditional media outlets is eroding - a trend with significant negative consequences for democratic integrity.

What are internet and social media companies doing to address it?

As such, fake news has gone from being a fringe issue to a matter of genuine concern for the world's technology giants, many of which have already taken steps to prevent the trend from developing further.

Facebook, for example, has introduced measures to prevent users from modifying link previews to prevent misleading content from being posted, while it is also enlisting fact-checkers to assess disputed stories, cutting off advertising revenue for fake news sites, and doing more to review the credentials of political advertisers. Twitter, meanwhile, has introduced a new crackdown on suspected bots, while Google is developing improved algorithms to tackle fake news content on YouTube.

However, many of these companies are still struggling to find a methodology for tackling the problem that does not open them up to accusations of political bias, or that does not put them at risk of being redefined as publishers of editorial content, rather than as neutral aggregators. Most of these problems have not yet been solved, meaning this is a conversation that is likely to persist into 2018 and possibly beyond.

Since the impact of fake news is global, businesses worldwide are having to learn lessons fast about the importance of responding proportionately to emerging security concerns associated with new tech trends of this kind. A failure to do so can be hugely damaging to their overall reputation, and have negative repercussions that ripple far beyond the confines of their industry.

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