Caitlin Smith discusses the impact of fake news online. She highlights technological developments impacting fake news’ success and failures, noting the links between political polarisation and distrust in the news. She maintains that new technologies to help us fact check the statements of politicians, amongst others, have extremely exciting implications. However, the people’s truth will not be addressed fully if individuals and groups don’t want to engage in discussion.


It’s been ten months since President Donald Trump’s election and even longer since ‘fake news’ hit the headlines. The concept of fake news, which Mr Trump has so successfully embraced, is not new. We can trace it back to the days before local news, to when communities gossiped about one another, spreading their own stories. Yet what we are experiencing now is much more than just local gossip, or harmless tales between friends in the pub. New technologies are enabling individuals and groups to intentionally spread misinformation and propaganda online.

The ease with which some individuals now believe what they read online, even when it appears clearly fake, is troubling. ‘Pizzagate’ is one of the more serious instances of this. After it was announced that the Hilary Clinton e-mail investigation would be reopened, rumours began circling on Twitter that a child sex trafficking ring was being run out of a series of pizza restaurants. More than 6,000 people re-tweeted the accusations, according to the Washington Post. It culminated with a man ‘self-investigating’ a pizza restaurant with a gun. More recently, a far-right group in Norway were called out for believing a picture of empty bus seats were women wearing burqas.

This is not just a problem for adults browsing the internet. A recent Stanford University report highlights that many children in the US struggle to distinguish between fact and fiction online. Subsequently they are not always cognizant of the bias that might be present in sponsored content. A survey from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women’s Teachers (NASUWT) in the UK, found 34 percent of students had cited fake news in their work. Now more than ever we have to ask; does the Google generation have sufficient critical online analysis skills?


The often reflective basin of social media has amplified Orwell’s ‘alternative facts’ on a global scale.

The news that George Orwell’s 1984 has become a best-seller again, speaks volumes. The often reflective basin of social media has amplified Orwell’s ‘alternative facts’ on a global scale. But as technology develops, so should our critical eye. A recently published Guardian article looks at new technologies that are able to doctor images of those in public office, placing other people’s facial movements onto theirs. With the addition of new voice technologies, the implications of this become even more severe. As pressure mounts for organisations to take action, some changes are now being made. Google has begun updating its advertisement system to prevent the promotion of fake news sites. Facebook has installed a warning function that will appear when something has been flagged as fake news.

While flagging tools are welcome, we should also not underestimate the challenges that large media outlets continue to face. With so much information online, it would be almost impossible at the current rate for Facebook to catch and flag all the fake news circulating on its site. If we then begin to include misleading or contentious articles, the task becomes even tougher. This is much more than the Orwellian dystopia and there is far more we can do to distinguish between the real and the fake. Social media has opened up a world of information for both the younger and older generations world-wide and, as an organising hub, many activists have made it their home; on and offline networks are attempting to communicate the people’s truth.

David Levitin, who recently published A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics, argues that our brains are programmed to accept the information we hear. As we try to digest more, our brains become overwhelmed; it becomes harder to differentiate. He suggests that a new way of critical thinking should be taught. Of course, this won’t change overnight. But in the meantime there are some options to assist us in this new critical landscape. They include new add-ons to your web browser, such as that crowdfunded by Slate. The toolbar highlights articles that have been classified as fake, providing a link to reputable sources debunking the fake claims. Wikipedia even has a new fact-checking spin off branch called Wikitribune. Grassroots projects such as the Fake News Challenge are also coming up with new ways to combat the phenomena. Using competitions as the basis for development, teams work together, combining language processing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to help those investigating bogus stories. Some technologies are even looking to provide live fact checking. What’s been appropriately dubbed the ‘bullshit detector’ has been developed by the Full Fact Organisation in the UK and will launch next month. The programme will scan information provided by politicians and deliver an instant analysis of their claims.


Fact checking took place by news agencies such as CNN during the election. Yet despite some of the absurd claims from the then candidate Mr Trump, he still succeeded in becoming president.

It is exciting to know that so much positive action has emerged from the rise in fake news. The many technological advances in development will likely have a powerful impact on elections, political discussion, and news reporting in the future. Having said that, the election of Donald Trump should caution us not to rely too heavily on such technology. Fact checking took place by news agencies such as CNN during the election. Yet despite some of the absurd claims from the then candidate Mr Trump, he still succeeded in becoming President. As a recent suggests, political polarisation is linked to distrust in the news media. If we as a society don’t deal with these deeper underlying issues and start to communicate openly and constructively, new technologies to help us recognise fake news will struggle to have a significant impact. Informed citizens have the power to disseminate and debate the facts. The next step is to encourage people to want the facts.


Caitlin Smith is a recent graduate of the MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford, receiving an Outstanding Academic Achievement award for her studies. Her most recent research focused on surveillance and nonviolent resistance movements and has previously examined corporate social responsibility and intra-state conflict. Contact Caitlin at: caitlin.rebecca38@gmail.com


Feature Image: Getting our news online has become increasingly common through new technology. Image: Pixabay [CC0 1.0]