fake news

Spotting and Calling Out Big Piles of BS

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation is everywhere. Wary citizens aren’t sure how to combat the misinformation surrounding them. Now there is a class for that.

University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a course titled “Calling Bullshit” that is designed to identify and call out misinformation “cloaked in data and figures.” For those unable to enroll in college, you can check out @Callin_bull account on Twitter, where you can find videos of course lectures and examples of revealed bullshit.

The core idea Bergstrom and West are pushing is critical thinking, which seems as rare at times as misinformation is abundant. They offer clues for non-mathematicians on how to detect fraudulent and misleading “information,” such as checking sources, looking for logical coherence and testing statistical relevance. The same techniques that require careful scrutiny apply to detecting fake videos.

Their college course has snagged the attention of at least 70 universities that have asked to borrow course materials. Bergstrom, who is a computational biologist, and West, a former graduate student of Bergstrom’s, are working on a public version of the course. “We wanted to show our students that you don’t need a master’s degree in statistics or computer science to call bullshit,” Bergstrom told The Washington Post.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Research indicates the group most likely to be fooled by and share fake news are older adults over 65 who align as political conservatives. 

Bergstrom and West honed their skills of spotting misinformation by reading professional papers and sniffing out statistical flaws and illogic. They realized misinformation – especially when propelled by social media echo chambers, created with artificial intelligence and carried on websites dedicated to conspiracy theories – is a far larger problem. Careless academic research is one thing; intentional efforts to mislead to sell products, push a political candidate or defame someone by deception is quite another.

They aren’t the first crusaders against bullshit, noted Post science writer Ben Guarino. “Journalist Darrell Huff wrote ‘How to Lie With Statistics in 1954. Astronomer Carl Sagan published “The Demon-Haunted World” in 1995, in which he offered to readers a ‘baloney detection kit.’”

In his story, Guarino includes a practical example of how an anti-BS examination works and the results it can produce. A Bates College student challenged claims that Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city with a high percentage of Somali refugees, was “dangerous.”

Using crime statistics provided by Lewiston police, the student generated graphs showing that Lewiston’s crime rate between 1985 and 2017 had actually declined. More than 20 other cities in Maine, she showed, had higher crime rates.

Her findings, which she printed on fliers that were distributed, surprised many in Lewiston, a town that saw its mayor resign after his racists text messages were leaked. Local police asked for a copy of the flier, recognizing a lower crime rate was an unacknowledged compliment for their work.

West called it a “thoughtful correction,” but also an instructive guide on how to combat misinformation, whether intentional, inadvertent, malicious or simply sloppy.

 

 

The Deep Web, Social Media and Malicious Misinformation

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

We only see a fraction of the internet. Hidden in the Deep Web are provocateurs and misery merchants that can disrupt a campaign with false information or punish a brand with weaponized memes.

The underbelly of the internet is a puzzling and poisonous place, where illicit drugs are sold and malicious misinformation is peddled. Fake news and incendiary memes launched from the deep web can bedevil consumer brands as easily as political campaigns.

Traditional communication responses to social media laced with lies is a lot bringing a fingernail clipper to a knife fight. New techniques are needed to fight back.

Richard Edelman, CEO of his eponymous PR firm, wrote a recent blog titled, “Understanding the Deep Web.” In it he advised, “In the battle for truth, a company must make its voice heard as quickly as it can. It’s a necessity to get out in front of a situation rather than play from behind.”

However, even a quick response may not be an adequate defense. In his blog, Edelman shares observations about fake news from Sharb Farjami, CEO of Storyful, which bills itself as a “social media intelligence agency.”

Storyful’s website offers an apocalyptic vision of contemporary social media: 

“Social media is not what it was eight years ago. The landscape is more complex and volatile, the stakes are higher, and the needs of business and media increasingly diverse. The weaponization of bots and misinformation, the impact of disinformation on elections and businesses, the threat eyewitnesses face when they capture and share current events –these are only a few of the features of the modern social landscape.”

We can argue over how things got this bad, but it is more productive to consider how to cope in this treacherous environment. Here are some of Farjami’s suggestions, as shared by Edelman:

  • Fake news often reaches traditional media via “feeders” lurking in the Deep Web, including on “fringe networks such as Gab, 4Chan and 8Chan.” Farjami quotes Wired as noting there may be “480,000 alt-right provocateurs [just] on the Gab site.”

  • Online provocateurs like to newsjack high-profile events to use as conduits for misinformation or an excuse to bash a brand. Within 48 hours after Nike launched its campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, “racially charged memes” appeared on 4Chan and later gravitated to Facebook.

  • A favorite technique of Deep Web denizens is to make up controversies, such as falsely linking the 5G network to cancer and vaccines to birth defects.

Edelman says active brands aren’t able to avoid controversy involving political, social or cultural issues. They don’t need to step out into the conversation; the conversation can find them through the Deep Web.

While this may seem like a problem affecting only big brands, it isn’t. Much misinformation is transmitted in words, but the ability to show out-of-context or doctored video is quickly evolving. What people see in picture or video can quickly transmogrify into mischievous misinformation. With virtually everyone possessing a smartphone, the threat extends well beyond the Nikes and Starbucks of the world.

A new dimension of social media engagement may be social media intelligence gathering so you know when a tsunami from the Deep Web is headed your way and you still have some time to react.

 

Combatting Online Fake News That Travels Faster Than Truth

New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

New research shows fake news travels farther, faster and deeper on Twitter than the truth, creating a nightmare for reputation managers who face a daunting challenge in fighting back. [Photo credit: Reuters]

This is real news that should send shivers down the backs of anyone concerned about their reputation – false news moves through Twitter “farther, faster, deeper and more broadly” than the truth.

The disquieting finding by a team of researchers at MIT and published in Science is based on tracking the online life of “news” trafficked on Twitter. Real news and false news were judged by a collection of online fact-checkers that included Snopes.com and Politifact.com. The study authors found a false rumor is retweeted and spreads 70 percent more than a true story.

To put that into context, a true story may reach 1,000 people while a false rumor could gain an audience of up to 100,000 Twitter users.

While experts speculate on what propels falsehoods to travel faster online than the truth, reputation managers should worry about how to counter a campaign based on fast-moving, unverified fake news. Especially as technology “improves” to automate mass dissemination of fake news, turning a cascade from a single tweet into a volcanic eruption.

The Washington Post story on the MIT findings recalled a 2013 incident when someone hacked into the Associated Press Twitter account and “reported” explosions in the White House injuring President Obama. The report was untrue, but before anyone knew the truth, the Dow Jones index dropped 100 points – in just two minutes.

Fake News Case Study   The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump.  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html    

Fake News Case Study

The New York Times provides an example of how a 35-year-old Austin, Texas man with only 40 Twitter followers unlashed a viral cascade of false news, which wound up being promoted by President Trump. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html

 

MIT researchers discovered that false news isn’t just spread by usual suspect bots. Some of the most viral contagions of fake news start as retweets from random individuals, which means the job of “monitoring the web” is pretty close to impossible.

Twitter collaborated with the researchers, which is itself a rarity, allowing them to trace the online lineage of 126,000 tweet cascades, spread by 3 million Twitter users.

Skeptics can question the sample and the differentiation between true and false stories. But the underlying fact remains that clicky false stories seem to have more online appeal and, therefore, represent a reputation-busting tool in the hands of unscrupulous or alienated people. It is a reputation manager’s worst nightmare. Someone tells a falsehood about you or your organization, you respond with verifiable facts, but the false narrative still dominates.

As noted in a previous Managing Issues blog, falsehoods that rise to the level of defamation can be dealt with by demanding that a social media platform removes the offending tweet. Many damaging falsehoods aren’t necessarily defamatory. They misstate facts or tell only part of the story. Debates over environmental issues and climate change are a great example of false or misleading narratives that come from either side of the debate.

Big lies by big actors usually get fact-checked. Big lies by lower profile actors seldom get fact-checked, which means the maligned party has the burden of trying to clean up the mess. Even lies exposed by credible fact-checkers can get shifted to their respective political lane of media outlets and never be seen by the other side of a polarized citizenry.

As social media moguls explore how to limit fake news, one tool reputation managers should consider when faced with a cascade of false news is to fight back on Twitter using promoted tweets. You would be, in effect, marketing your truth.

Use tools like video that attract the most attention on social media, including Twitter. Don’t whine. Find credible third parties who can verify your facts and attest to your veracity. Punch back hard, but fairly. Tell viewers the stakes. When appropriate, include a call to action such as shaming the person or organization responsible for the fake news – and those who help promote it, either unintentionally or on purpose.

Don’t be afraid to cross news channels to tell your story. Seek earned media coverage from print and TV outlets by stressing you are doing the only thing possible to combat the spread of false stories.

The worst thing to do is nothing. If you don’t defend your reputation, don’t expect anyone else to defend it. Purveyors of falsehoods may seem to have the upper hand in an online gunfight, but if you wage an honorable defense, you might receive more help than you expected.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.