The Fake News Plague

In the lead up to the trash fire that was the 2016 US elections, there was a rash of conspiracy theories about the Democrats and Hillary Clinton that were spread around by conservative media and trolls. Some were somewhat believable–like the one where she was supposedly Very Ill With Some Unnamed Illness, after footage of Hillary, a 70-year-old lady, was shown looking a little frail on film at one point. Some, you’d think, were just so batshit ridiculous that nobody could unironically believe they were real.

Or so I thought.

On October 2016, just before the election, a white supremacist Twitter account claimed that the NYPD had found a Democratic satanic paedophile ring that was being run out of a pizza parlour called Comet Ping Pong. You’d think that a conspiracy like that would be too funny to be taken as anything but a joke, yet further conservative “news” sites soon claimed, among other things, that the NYPD had raided Hillary’s home and that the raid was confirmed by the FBI. Over a million messages used #Pizzagate in 2016. The theory was soon picked up by various far-right activists and even ended up on the pro-Erdoğan government newspapers in Turkey. There were serious consequences for the restaurant: harassment and death threats. Bands tied to the restaurant were abused, as were similar restaurants in the same area, and businesses with similar names. Despite being widely debunked by news organisations, the matter came to a head early December 2016, when a man holding an AR-15 walked into the restaurant and started firing. No one was hurt. When arrested, the shooter said he’d decided to investigate Comet Ping Pong after seeing the matter brought up on Infowars, a far-right conspiracy site whose owner is currently being sued for defamation after driving harassment to the parents of children killed during the Sandy Hook mass shooting (he claimed they were just child actors). Despite people like Jones having to retract their statements and apologise to the owner of Comet Ping Pong since, a small fire was set at the back of Comet Ping Pong this year.

It’s easy to dismiss things like this as stuff that only deranged people will believe, but I’ve seen similar conspiracy theories spread by people closer to home. My college-educated corporate parents, for example, still spread the occasional fake news link over the family chat, which my brother and I have to instantly pounce on to debunk. There are also smaller conspiracies, debunked by science but still considered to be widely true by everyone (e.g. that Yakult makes any sort of real difference to your digestion). With disinformation rapidly poisoning the world and making people distrust everything they read on the news, how can we avoid getting scammed, stay true to the truth, and avoid adding to the mess?

Fake News and Advertising

Mea culpa. Advertising is sadly responsible for spreading a lot of dangerous untruths in the world, lies that ended up broadly corrected often only after lawsuits. Take the whole furor over cigarettes, for example, which ended up in tobacco advertising being banned in some countries, including Australia. The industry still doesn’t publicly accept that smoking causes lung cancer. False and misleading advertising isn’t allowed in Australia – recently, Heinz was fined $2.25 million for misleading advertising by the Federal Court of Australia:

In its initial proceeding against Heinz, the ACCC alleged the company made false and misleading representations, and engaged in conduct liable to mislead the public in relation to the nature, characteristics and suitability of its Little Kids Shredz products. These included statements claiming the product was ‘99 per cent fruit and veg’ and that the food was ‘nutritious’.

At the time, the ACCC pointed out the products contained upwards of 60 per cent sugar, a far greater ratio than an apple, for example, which is about 10 per cent sugar. Its actions followed a complaint made by the Obesity Policy Coalition about food products for toddlers that made such claims when they in fact were predominantly made from fruit juice concentrate and pastes which had much higher sugar content that raw fruit and vegetables.

Being truthful in advertising is more important than ever now, in a world where there’s usually a lot of competition in any market or industry. Brand trust is paramount. If customers stop trusting your brand for any reason — and being lied to is a huge one — they’d move on, and it’d be hard to win them back. A few tips:

  1. Be careful. Research any statement many times before you make it. If there’s even a possibility that it might not be accurate, don’t make it.
  2. Or use careful disclaimers. Have legal check your wording.
  3. If you do get something wrong, own up to it immediately, with a real apology. Not a non-apology.
  4. Commit to being as honest and as transparent with your customers as you can be. They’ll appreciate it.
  5. Add value to their lives. If it’s information – be accurate. For anything else – try to be respectful.

Countering Disinformation

Fake news often spreads through social media. In the Phillippines, where Facebook is free but internet isn’t, this has had consequences: the election of President Duterte:

Two years after the launch of Free Facebook, Rodrigo Duterte mounted a presidential bid, casting himself as the tough-on-crime, anti-elite Everyman ready to bring back jobs and order. Posts about Duterte, full of memes, propaganda, and outright libel (one opponent, now in prison on a dubious drug charge, saw a fake sex tape circulate on Facebook with her in it) did extremely well on Facebook, as nearly any inflammatory content does. When Duterte said he would dump the bodies of executed drug dealers “into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there,” the post immediately went “viral, viral, viral,” bragged one of his two social-media directors.

He won handily, and his rule has been brutal. At least 12,000 people have been killed during Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have been jailed, many of them opponents of Duterte himself. Meanwhile, his social-media team has actively worked to bring in social-media influencers to prop up Duterte’s regime (think Filipino versions of social-media creatures like Mike Cernovich, Laura Loomer, or Jack Posobiec) working closely with the Duterte administration — sometimes directly on the government payroll — to spread fake stories such as a deposed Supreme Court justice was caught attempting to flee the country. Meanwhile, news sources seen as unfriendly to the Duterte campaign have increasingly come under fire, including banning all reporters from an outlet from the presidential palace.

While a system-wide application of fake news like that can only be countered either at an institutional level or a paid organised level, here in Australia, where the internet is uncensored and freely available, it’s possible to safeguard yourself against fake news. A good rule of thumb is, if something feels even slightly unbelievable, Google it before spreading it. Sites like will help you figure things out in a pinch. Sometimes, even if it’s believable, Google it anyway. Before you spread any information, especially news, find a credible site. Read articles linked to statements before retweeting or sharing them – often, snappy 140-280 character Twitter analyses of an article sensationalise it, and key details can be misinterpreted or left out. If you get things wrong, fess up quick. Everyone falls for fake news now and then. Clickbait articles are designed to be highly readable, designed to appeal to and convince you of an idea. In other words, they’re often forms of very good advertising in their own way. Surely by now everyone knows not to completely trust what they see on TV or on social media. You’d just need to apply the same cynicism toward information in general.

We’ve become increasingly time-poor, increasingly addicted to social media, with a tendency to take our news from these platforms. I get why. Facebook’s algorithms are built to show you things that it thinks are in your interest. Information spreads so fast on Twitter that if I hear a rumour of something happening, like a rally in Melbourne CBD, I often check Twitter first because news organisations are unlikely to update anywhere as quickly. Social media can be good for spreading real news, too — I was in a recent talk by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson, who said that Twitter saved his life. During the Ferguson protests, his platform gave him so much visibility and connections that it was an invaluable part of organising the movement. The Hong Kong protests are highly visible online, and are organised through Telegram.

The platforms are only part of the problem. The trolls will always be there, and as long as their methods keep working, as long as only a tiny percentage of them ever face consequences, they’d keep on churning out fake content for their own purposes. The best we can do is to either approach everything we read online with a healthy grain of salt (a fistful of it, if it’s seen on social media), or to delete everything and live off-grid somewhere in the wilderness. Some days, that’s tempting.

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