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Social media platforms begin to turn the page on fake news

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Conspiracy theorists moving to messaging services, says academic

Major social media companies have taken significant steps to reduce the spread of fake news – but conspiracy theorists and purveyors of alternative facts have responded by taking their views “underground”.

So says Dr Fadi Safieddine, senior lecturer in computer science at the University of East London, who has been monitoring the growth and impact of viral fake news.

Dr Safieddine believes that fake news no longer finds such a comfortable home on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – so its proponents have switched to private and encrypted messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, which are becoming the new centres of disinformation.

On a podcast carried on the Faculti platform, he said, “My biggest concern is social media messaging platforms because there it’s impossible to control the spread of fake news. The ‘filter bubbles’ are already in place within these private groups. It’s a lot harder to challenge because fake news has gone underground.”

Filter bubbles are information deserts where people find their views go unchallenged because an algorithm is delivering them what they want to hear based on their preferences and prejudices.

Using the example of “flat-earthers”, Dr Safieddine pointed to research that showed how impenetrable their views were to rational argument and scientific evidence and yet did yield to satire and mockery – which was unlikely to be a feature of self-selecting messaging groups.

He said, research suggested that “we have become too agreeable as a society, too happy to accept views that may sound ridiculous because we don’t want to hurt people’s feeling. So rather than say ‘no, this is wrong’, making a joke exposes how ridiculous they sound”.

Dr Safieddine said that 2016 was a significant year in the battle against fake news. That was when the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded, and it became clear to the public the extent to which social media companies such as Facebook had “weaponised the filter bubble”.

Advertisers and campaigners could buy private information and target messaging with such precision it became an uncomfortable intrusion into people’s private thoughts and was seen as a form of underhand manipulation.

He said, big platforms such as Facebook and Instagram and even Twitter have begun to put their houses in order “modifying their algorithms specifically to target groups that promoted conspiracy theories or regularly produced fake news”.

Working with colleagues at the University of East London, Queen Mary University, and the American University of the Middle East, Dr Safieddine modelled the spread of fake news using big data simulations to examine the variables that affected its spread.

They concluded the main factor contributing to the failure to halt fake news circulating was the lack of validation tools.

The social media platforms are beginning to address this shortcoming, making headlines doing so when President Donald Trump’s incendiary social media posts were fact-checked or blocked.

Dr Safieddine said, “The results show some reduction in the spread of fake news but the ability to combat the spread remains limited and hampered by the slow response of third-party fact-checkers.

“Our simulations show that a semi-automated approach to fact-finding, dubbed ‘right-click authenticate’, allows the user to get a faster indication of the validity of the information remains the most efficient and effective option.

“We are continuing the research on several fronts, including studying how social media platform responded to fake news on Covid-19 and 2020 US Presidential Election
“Early results suggest the top four social media giants have learned the lessons from past mistakes. Nearly all have put in place measures to stop the spread of fake news resulting in a significant reduction in this trend but failed to eliminate it. 

 “Facebook now covers up posts and articles that are fake and provides the users with a link to click and find the facts. That’s a huge change because it has moved away from the starting ethos of these companies. That was: anyone can share whatever they want and eventually the truth will come through. They have come to realise that just did not work.”

Fake Media In An Era of Social Media, edited by Yasmin Ibrahim and Fadi Safieddine is available from Rowman & Littlefield.