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Fake News

October 23, 2016

The other day, I noticed an article posted on a computer security web site that was about fake news.  The author wanted to identify fake news sites and block them.  Perhaps they didn’t realize how difficult it was to identify these sites.  In fact, the article suggested that only Russian sites published fake news, and that only Western sites published accurate news.  It’s actually much more complicated than that.

Search engines are partly to blame for the popularity of fake sites, especially if they rank fake sites higher than the real ones.  I can only speculate why they might do this, but it certainly does happen.  Most of the fake sites seem to be set up only to make money for their owners.  A good example happened recently in Britain.  The government set up a series of web sites to offer free government services to people, usually by filling out an online form.  Then, commercial web sites appeared that provided the same service, but charged people a fee for doing it.  People complained that the commercial sites were listed before the government ones in search engine results, misleading people into using the commercial sites instead of the free ones.  The search engine companies changed their ranking to favour the government sites, in this case, ending the complaints.

It used to be that you could type the model number of any piece of equipment, a monitor for example, into a search engine, and get back a link to the manufacturer’s web site.  There, you would find the user manual, the service manual, and any firmware upgrades that the equipment required.  If you try this now, you will get back a whole list of sites that claim to provide any manual you might need.  Following the link will bring you a whole page of advertizing, with another link to your manual.  That link will bring you another page of advertizing.  Eventually, you will find a link to the manufacturer’s web site.  If the manufacturer no longer provides the manual, it will be a broken link.  Clearly, sites like this are only there to make money for the owner, by selling advertizing space.  They don’t even have their own copy of the manual you need.

There are similar web sites that offer news rather than manuals.  I’ve seen some of them appear in the Google News listings.  The first tip-off that this is a fake news site is the large amount of advertizing that they carry, including small images that are now called clickbait.  The second tip-off is the spelling and grammatical errors in the news articles.  Again, these sites are only money-making vehicles for their owners.  The news articles are only there to attract people to the advertizing.

What about political news?  Can it be biased?  Of course, we all have a personal bias.  We accept information that agrees with our beliefs, and reject information that disagrees with it.  News agencies always have a bias that comes from their point of view.  We should expect that type of bias.  We should take it into account.  Sometimes, however, they seem to all republish as news information that comes from the government.  Uncritical news reporting like that is dangerous, and can easily be reporting of false news.  Most news agencies also do their own independant investigation.  That sort of news is at least more likely to be reliable.  It may be obvious when an agency is exaggerating information or citing it selectively to support their existing beliefs.  Fact checking helps here, but it’s also not perfect.

What they don’t report is also significant.  During World War 1, the British government ordered all of the newspaper editors to report only British victories, but never British defeats.  Readers never knew that the battle of the Somme, for example, was a German victory and a British defeat.  More recently, when hurricane Mathew moved through Haiti, through Cuba, through the Bahamas, and towards the US mainland, we heard news from all of the countries except for Cuba.  Somehow the hurricane skipped over Cuba.  It didn’t, of course.  I had to do a very specific web search to find out what happened there.

So, how do we avoid false news sites?  How do we get accurate information?  Who can we trust?  It’s nobody, when all news sources are biased.  A diversity of news sources helps.  A distant point of view also helps.  I read British news sites to get their view on other parts of the world.  I also occasionally read news sites in Egypt, Pakistan, Australia, and Russia to obtain news stories from within these countries.  It’s probably the best I can do.  When I get completely different information from two source, I assume that they may be both wrong, and that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  A skeptical attitude helps too.

 

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