@sebastiaanvanderlansSebastiaan van der Lans
Chairman of The Trusted Web Foundation, CEO of WordProof. On a mission to bring trust back to the internet.
Spreading fake news should be considered a criminal act. The unchecked spread of misinformation and fake content is a threat to society, and something radical needs to be done about it. While a widespread censorship law wouldn’t be the right solution, there are many ways to combat fake news through transparency and accountability on the internet. Through increasing media literacy, people can recognize fake news when they see it.
Our recent report titled “The State of Misinformation 2021” outlines what 2000 Americans and Europeans see as the effects of fake news, both on themselves and society, what they do when they encounter fake news, and what solutions could help them trust the content they’re seeing. While they believed that fake news poses a threat to society and while few are hopeful it’ll improve, the report also revealed that the spread of fake news starts at the individual level.
How Fake News Spreads So Easily
Nearly everyone who participated in the report was confident they could spot fake news if they saw it. But fake news isn’t designed to be spotted. Fake news doesn’t just come in obvious forms from certain sites, but it can come from anywhere and be presented differently. Fake news may be false information spread in images or posts, doctored images or deep fake videos, images, videos from other events said to be a different event, and more. Even parody content is considered fake news because it may be misconstrued as being real. The common factor is that the creator deliberately constructs content that contains false information or that attempts to create a false reality unsuspecting viewers may believe is true.
While most people think they’ll be able to spot fake news when they see it, they can’t. One-third of those who thought they wouldn’t be duped by fake news ended up inadvertently sharing it with their followers, not knowing it was fake. Many also didn’t think they saw a large amount of fake news in their social media feeds or search engines. But if many have admitted that they didn’t recognize fake news when they saw it, this means that there’s a lot more fake news out there than they think.
How Fake News is a Societal Threat
But is fake news such a big threat? Yes. Already we see that malicious actors create content intended to mislead viewers into a fake reality, change the way they see the world around them, get them to believe and take action according to this manipulated reality. And it’s not just a few people falling for this. Fake news is created to be sensational and easily shareable and can go viral quickly. And if one-third of the survey pool in the report shared fake content, not knowing it was such, that means that one-third of society as a whole is spreading misinformation.
So it’s no surprise that US respondents said they believed fake news to be a greater threat to society than terrorism and being nearly equal in threat as climate change and data theft with its impact on personal safety and existence. While European respondents didn’t see fake news as being as big of a threat to society, they still believed that misinformation impacted elections, not just in one country but in many.
No wonder people want the spreading of fake news to be a crime.
Fixing the Problem of Fake News
Short of criminalizing fake news, which is protected under free speech, there are plenty of approaches both individuals and organizations can take to increase transparency and awareness that can decrease fake news, including the following:
More Fake News Recognition: There is a part of the population that fact-checks content when they believe they’ve come across something untrustworthy, but it’s not enough of the population. A good place to start is by understanding all the different types of fake news out there, starting with the ones mentioned above, which are part of The Columbia Journalism Review’s six types of fake news.
More Sourcing and Author Information: Having more transparency into who the content was written by and what organization it’s affiliated with, as well as giving access to ways a piece of content has been updated or changed since it was created, will help increase trust. Having easy access to credible information about the author could help as well. These kinds of additions to content across the internet will create a system of accountability.
No Longer Featuring Unaffiliated Content: The report revealed that over half of respondents were in favor of search engines limiting content that doesn’t have an author or that’s unaffiliated with a credible organization as a way to focus users on more trustworthy content.
Who’s responsibility is it to solve fake news? European respondents believed it was the government and regulators’ role to step in. This approach suggests the desire for some kind of mediation on the internet around transparency and accountability. Ultimately, though, everyone — including news outlets, social media platforms, tech companies, and individuals — needs to play a part in combating fake news.
Moving Past the Threat
Fake news is a threat and has divided relationships, led people down misinformed paths, and caused physical harm. While many believe that fake news is a problem that’s unsolvable, there are many steps we can take to reduce the threat — we just have to make an effort.
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