Taking aim against fake news: Communication strategies to counter online character assassination
PhD in media and Internet studies,
Lecturer, researcher at ULB, IHECS (Brussels)
The power of fake news to influence politics is one of the defining trends of our time. This phenomenon has become a political, technical and even an economic issue. Since 2016, fake news has infringed upon every aspect of political activity; from electoral campaigns to political events, with many being directly affected. Targets have included Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, the candidate for the German SPD in the 2017 federal election. Ben Scott1 considers fake news to be one of the major reasons Hilary Clinton’s US presidential campaign was unsuccessful2. Likewise, just as for Brexit3, thousands of anonymous fake social media accounts allegedly spread misinformation in the run-up to the Catalan independence referendum4. A 2017 EU-wide survey showed that 83% of Europeans believed fake news represents “a danger to democracy”.
Fake news aiming to destroy the online reputations5 of political figures represents a major challenge in political communications.
It is arguable that the rise of fake news is symptomatic of deeper structural transformations in political, economic and media spheres.
As we approach the 2019 European Parliament elections, EU strategies for debunking and detection are of utmost importance.
Economic power of algorithms and data
While part of the “sharing economy”6, the business models of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are largely promoting the principle of “click-bait”. These platforms massively benefit from users sharing articles – including fake news – which contain advertisements. In order to compete with Twitter, Facebook made a change to its newsfeed algorithm in 2012, switching the focus from the activities of friends to media and paid content7. With more visibility given to paid posts reaching a purposefully selected audience, sensational content - often inaccurate or misleading - began to dominate.
Advice: Social media ads have become a powerful tool in political communications8, often used to frame the agenda and online conversation. Therefore, fake news debunking should be considered as gossip-related crisis management. In order to anticipate waves of fake news, it is crucial to actively promoting one’s message first and therefore pre-emptively debunking any inaccurate information.
In combating fake news, proactivity is key.
Social network sharing functions have transformed the ordinary news consumer into news prosumers. In parallel, the weakening of traditional media gatekeepers has led to the disappearance of filtering barriers. In fact, the veracity of the information now seems less important than the emotional appeal9. This emerging post-truth paradigm10 is becoming very much a component of digital capitalism11. The pluralism of sources caused a loss of control of the news’ veracity12 – fact-checking almost never reaches news consumers13.
Advice: Collaboration with news producers and fact-checkers are essential elements of any public or political communication campaign. The development of software tools may allow journalists to perform and automatise fact-checking processes.
New populism: governing through emotions and gossip
Research on recent national elections has revealed that over the past three years, the amount of online electoral content has increased ten-fold14. Political leaders may want to use this content inflation by using the “trial balloons strategy” to test public reactions on certain topics, and pre-frame the media agenda. Likewise, some international figures consider fake news as part of their soft power strategies or digital diplomacy, as shown by the case of the Chinese “click farms” or Russian “troll factories”, financed through a complex grant system.
Advice: To pre-emptively tackle instances of fake news, investing in counter-offensive digital skills would be a wise strategy for public organisations such as the EU institutions. It seems important to establish a monitoring centre with regards to reputational management. Digital tools (e.g. the “Visibrain” or “Papyrus” algorithmic softwares) exist to help locate early signs of fake news waves.
Catching up with fake news in the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections
While the EU seems to urge for fake news regulation, adopting a sound framework explaining how social media companies should operate in the context of the 2019 European elections would be highly beneficial for the European Commission. Two approaches regarding fake news seem to currently coexist at EU-level. First, observing the strategic use of fake news and identifying fake news producers. The East Stratcom taskforce, the EU’s counter-propaganda unit, is thereby currently in charge of monitoring the fake news ecosystem. According to the EU Disinformation Review, 1,048 cases disinformation could be identified in 2017 concerning EU topics. 399 sources could be tracked back to the Ukraine, 390 in Russia and 255 in the United States.
The second approach consists of regulating tech companies. While the EU is leading by example by having officials hold regular meetings with social media managers in order to have them adapt their activities to the current EU laws, it will take some time before there is an effective legislative framework that efficiently tackles the root cause – and spread – of fake news. For example, under current EU legislation, publishers are not pressured to remove fake news content and there currently is no decisive method for judging whether a publication is producing disinformation or not. Moreover, political candidates are not legally protected in the case of any fake news spread. This will no doubt change in the coming months and years however; the Commission is already preparing the first set of rules on how governments and tech groups should debunk various types of “online disinformation” such as false news stories. Meanwhile, EU Member States have begun to adopt laws concerning fake news regulation15. In June 2017, Germany adopted a law determining fines up to €50 million with regards to social media platforms failing to remove fake news and hateful posts within 24 hours of notification. Currently, the French government is preparing its first ‘fake news law’ which would allow judges to take down false news content during electoral campaigns, to block websites altogether during political elections, and to change the role of France's media watchdog.
The wheels are turning to create a legislative environment that provides full protection against fake news.
But according to the current legal context, it seems difficult to be fully protected in tribunals. In order to stop fake news content, it is necessary to locate producers or accounts responsible for its spread, and to ask social media administrators to block them. It is also crucial to establish a strong and vivid online community of partisans with strong counter-offensive digital skills and the ability, as community managers, to belittle and devalue fake news content.
Fine-tuning institutional strategies in the struggle with online misinformation
As a digital society, we have entered uncharted territory in the fight against online fake news: never before have we witnessed such a rapid and sustained spread of misleading and false information. It is a new problem, but not one that cannot be fought. Institutional online strategists and social media managers can consider the following when devising their fake news counter-strategy:
• Consider fake-news debunking as gossip-related crisis management
• Establish a monitoring platform on political reputation
• Develop the counter-offensive skills of digital teams
• Monitor social media through dedicated data-analysis software
• Pre-frame the media agenda: communicate objective information before the first waves of fake news
• Implement a strong online community pushing for the blocking of fake news accounts
• Collaborate news producers and fact-checkers
The current role that social media plays in the massive, synchronised and targeted production of fake news, and in destroying digital reputations, is huge. Nevertheless, the same social media platforms offer institutional figures sufficient opportunities to identify and monitor fake news as well as develop resistance strategies; in short, fire can be fought with fire.
1 Technology adviser who has teamed up with “Stiftung Neue Verantwortung”, a digital think tank in Berlin for the USA presidential campaign
3 In November 2017, data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California in Berkeley said that fake Twitter accounts had posted more than 45,000 fake news messages about Brexit in 48 hours around the referendum.
4 In 2017, According to the Atlantic Council’s analysis, only one social media “Sputnik” have published more than 200 misleading articles on the upcoming vote and about how to resolve the country’s standoff over the Catalan referendum over the two weeks through September 27. Cf. https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-catalonia-referendum-fake-news-misinformation/
5 Character assassination is a concept of communication theory, defined as a purposeful process of negative impact on reputation and trust in relation to a certain subject, as well as the result of this process.
6 As French scholar Dominique Cordon stands, in « sharing economy » based? On peer-to-peer exchanges, the algorithms of recommendation are more and more sophisticated. Editors of information do not decide anymore the hierarchy of the information in social Medias. “The statistical tools become the tools of power”, cf. CARDON Dominique, Power of algorithms", what are the algorithms dreaming about? Our lives in the age of big data, 2015? Paris, Seuil.
8 During the US election, Donald Trump spent $70 million on Facebook ads and communication
9 MIROWSKI Philip, “Hellis Truth Seen Too Late”, Zilsel, 2018/1 (N° 3), 146-180
10 The Oxford Dictionary of 2016 defines the post-truth – as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Cf. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016
11 HARSIN Jayson, “Un guide critique des fake news: de la comédie à la tragédie”, Pouvoirs 2018/1 (N° 164), p. 99-119
12 GUYADER Antonin, “Les enjeux du grand bouleversement”, Pouvoirs, 2018/1 (N° 164).
13 Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, January 2018, http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/fake-news-2016.pdf
14 According to the election survey project “Politoscope”, during French President Election, in 2017, 1 million tweet per day were published. In 2014, 1.5-3 million tweets were published per month.
15 In April 2018, Malaysia has become the first country in the world to introduce a clear anti-fake news law. Under the new legislation, offenders could be sentenced to up to six years in prison.
ALLCOTT Hunt, GENTZKOW, Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election, 2017, National Bureau of Economic Research
CARDON Dominique, Power of algorithms", what are the algorithms dreaming about? Our lives in the age of big data, 2015, Paris, Seuil
CURRIE Stephen, Sharing Posts: The Spread of Fake News, 2017, ReferencePoint Press, Incorporated
GUYADER Antonin, « Les enjeux du grand bouleversement », Pouvoirs, 2018/1 (N° 164).
HARSIN Jayson, The Rumor Bomb: Vertiginous Democracy and Regimes of Post-Truth, 2018 Duke University Press
HARSIN Jayson, « Un guide critique des fake news : de la comédie à la tragédie », Pouvoirs 2018/1 (N° 164), p. 99-119
ICKS M. & SHIRIAEV E., Character Assassination throughout the Ages, 2017, Ed. by. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
MIROWSKI Philip, “« Hellis Truth Seen Too Late », Zilsel, 2018/1 (N° 3), 146-180