An Unfortunate Sign of Success - Fake News
An Unfortunate Sign of Success - Fake News
Recent updates with the Twitter API hope to lessen the probability for fake news posts to fall into the trending classification.
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I think a majority of the population would agree with the statement that Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have achieved success in the technology space. All four have risen beyond being household names and a majority of internet users interact with at least one of the four on a daily basis. If you were to ask any of the four what a primary concern is, it would be the use of their platform to proliferate messages which are not exactly true.
Fake news is the name which has been coined for such practices - so popular that it is often tweeted from the Oval Office in Washington DC.
According to Wikipedia, fake news is defined as "a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue."
Fake News Is the Pop-Up Hell and Spam From Years Ago
As the Internet began to gain acceptance, one of the aspects that I found the most annoying were pop-up ads. While navigating to a website, the user would be presented with a pop-up modal, which pushed advertising right into the face of the consumer. Some sites got carried away launching modal after modal, in different positions on the screen, causing the end-user to have to navigate around the screen in order to close all the unexpected messages.
Then there was the challenge of spam being sent over email. Things like pre-approved credit or an attorney looking to give millions from the death of a lost relative caused the staggering reality that 85% of email traffic was considered as spam less than ten years ago. Most recently, that number has reduced to around 40%.
Now, end-users find themselves seeing a link on social media, that appears to be valid news - only to realize the source of the link is not true. In some cases, I have had to help friends and relatives remove plug-ins and notifications that have been added to their mobile device or browser to rid them of this negative user experience.
With the pop-up situation, browsers improved to disable pop-ups by default. In fact, a warning is displayed when a pop-up is attempted and the user must manually accept the pop-up, as a result of the misuse of this functionality. On the spam side of things, anti-spam solutions (both hardware and software-based) put the necessary safeguards in place to minimize the amount of traffic that actually reaches an end-user's inbox.
Something really needs to be done about Fake News.
Fake News Gets More Real
Fake news continues to migrate closer to actual news. The original items tried to entice users by including text like "You Won't Believe What Happened Next" in the title. Perhaps there was a visitor at a safari park and the article was going to talk about a disaster that was caught on video. Eventually, the public and social media providers caught on to this basic click-bait approach.
Now, the fake news articles are trying to mimic real news items. Recently, following the very unfortunate situation in a South Florida high school, David Hogg talked about his experience of being near the tragic event. He became an advocate for promoting gun control, based on his personal experience. Quickly fake news items emerged, stating that Hogg is really an actor, being coached by his father - a former employee of the FBI. One thread even suggests those students impacted are really a group of actors who travel around the country in order to promote anti-gun agendas.
In this case, the production of this information passed the current safeguards in place by social media that try to avoid allowing fake news items to be listed as trending.
Combating Fake News
On February 21, Twitter announced a change in their TweetDeck and Twitter API to limit the ability of users to perform coordinated actions across multiple accounts. What this basically means is that posting an identical message across multiple accounts over their API is no longer permitted. The same holds true for their reaction tasks of liking, retweeting, and following.
The intent is to avoid tricking the algorithms in place to define popular items. Prior to the restrictions put in place, the following process could be set up and automated without much effort:
Create the Fake News article.
Design a post that references the article.
Register a vast number of fake accounts on the Twitter network.
For each Twitter account, execute the following steps with an automation script:
Grab post text, including any hashtags.
Post the message to Twitter using the API.
Note the published URL as a result of the post.
When finished, for each URL in item 4.3 (above), execute the following steps for each Twitter account in an automated script:
Navigate to the post URL.
Send a Like to the post programmatically using the API.
Send a Retweet programmatically using the API.
Send a Follow request programmatically using the API.
If we assume that 5,000 Twitter accounts were created, the script above could yield 50 million actions (posts, likes, retweets, and follows) in the short amount of time that would be required to execute the scripts above. This could trick the trend indicators on social media sites into assuming this is an activity that is truly popular and trending.
Understanding the how and why behind such actions, is something that has continued to elude me since I first encountered items like spam, unexpected pop-up models and now fake news. I honestly just don't understand why someone would take so much time to proliferate something that is not based on factual information.
My hope is that improvements made from the API level, along with inline data analytics, can put fake news into the same metaphorical bucket as pop-up ads and spam. My only fear is what these types of individuals have planned next.
Have a really great day!
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