2020: The year in seven fake news stories

Fact check: Four false stories that tricked millions of readers this year.

How should we deal with fake news? Many western governments are moving towards stricter regulation of tech giants. But others believe that only a more educated public can stop the blight.

Have you heard that the Covid-19 vaccine will rewrite your DNA? If not, don’t worry. It is fake news. What is true, however, is that debate about misinformation online reached a fever pitch this year.

From politicians calling for fake news to be banned, to others suggesting they should “weaponise” it, the public’s ability to tell fact from fiction is increasingly contested.

Here are seven stories that show how fake news shaped this year.

First casualty. In January, Iran launched missiles at Iraqi airbases hosting US troops in retaliation for the American assassination of general Qasem Soleimani. Many feared war. Iranian state TV announced that 80 “American terrorists” had been killed. The USA said it experienced no casualties. Some argued that “fake news” allowed both sides to save face and avoid conflict.

Covid-5G. By far the biggest subject for fake news this year was Covid-19. The stories were numerous and varied, but one popular one was that Covid-19 was caused by 5G radiation. In Britain, 5G masts were attacked, and blame was often pointed at Bill Gates in what became an increasingly Byzantine conspiracy theory.

Dolphins of Venice. When Coronavirus lockdowns began, social media was abuzz with animal news. Nature was healing. Venice, no longer clogged with tourists, now had clean canals down which Dolphins cruised. Sadly, the heartening video was actually from a different region of Italy.

Viral veganism. In India, a false story that that no-one who eschewed all animal products had contracted Covid-19 went viral. While this might not seem too harmful, the resulting drop in sales of meat and eggs hit farmers and butchers hard. Some saw the story as part of the promotion of Hindutva in India.

Constantine cancelled. The death of George Floyd at the hands of US police, kicked off a summer of protest against racism. Iconoclasts tore down statues of historical figures they saw as racist. Rumours abounded about who was next to fall. Perhaps the oddest story was that York Minster planned to remove a statue of the Roman emperor Constantine because of his support for slavery. The Church of England was forced to state that they had no such plans.

Rigged election. A daring raid on a CIA server in Germany revealed the plot to rig the US election against Donald Trump… or so the fake story went. Its popularity is evidence of a stark epistemic divide among Americans. It is just one of many casting President Trump’s loss this November as the result of fraud. The president has yet to concede officially, but some of his statements have been censored by social media companies, already treating him as yesterday’s fake news.

Trained Triceratops. A video of a dinosaur being unloaded from a truck went viral this month in Indonesia. Many shared it in the belief that it was real. It turned out to be a robot filmed to promote a theme park. While some fake news stories are all about lies and Russian spies, others are simply about people seeing what they want to see.

How should we deal with fake news?

Reality check

Regulate! say some. Social media companies should be responsible for information shared on their platforms. If they do not take action to stop lies being spread, then we will see ever more anger and division. Algorithms showing people what they want to read will combine with fake news to reinforce false beliefs. The lack of an objective standard of truth online could become dangerous.

Educate! say others. There have always been lies, mistakes and misrepresentations in the media. Allowing either the government or large companies to decide what is true or false is a recipe for disaster. What is to stop them from censoring their own critics? What is needed is the ability to discern reliable sources for oneself. And the best way to do that is to teach people about fake news.

You Decide

  1. Who would you want in charge of deciding which news was fake?
  2. If a satirist writes something that people mistake for real news and this results in harm such as a riot, does the satirist bear any responsibility?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write a story using only news headlines from one source. Take turns adding headlines in order to make the story.
  2. Much fake news is produced in so-called “content farms”. In Macedonia, for example, many people are hired to write stories about American politics that they likely do not care about. Imagine you are one of those people, and write a story about why you do what you do.

Some People Say...

“For who knows not that Truth is strong, next to the Almighty? She needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licensings to make her victorious.”

John Milton (1608 - 74), English Poet and Government Censor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that fake news, as a concept, has been around for as long as news. Prominent examples include the New York Sun writing articles about life on the moon in 1835, and the “yellow journalism” of the 1890s which some claim triggered the Spanish American War of 1898. The term, “fake news”, however, became more popular in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, both because the president himself often used the phrase, and because his critics did.
What do we not know?
One key area of debate is how much impact online misinformation actually has on politics. While some argue that Russian misinformation was crucial to the Brexit vote and to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, others say that interactions with trolls and fake news websites made little difference to how people voted.

Word Watch

Retaliation
Revenge. The Americans would argue that their assassination was itself revenge for Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
No casualties
It was later admitted that 110 soldiers suffered from “traumatic brain injuries” as a result of the attack.
5G
Fifth generation mobile broadband. This is the latest broadband technology for mobile phones, and is estimated to be many times faster than the current 4G.
Byzantine
Extremely complex. The term comes from a description of the Byzantine empire’s bureaucracy, which was often thought to be excessively large and complicated.
Eschewed
Refused or avoided.
Hindutva
Hindu nationalism. India’s ruling BJP party is often accused of being Hindu nationalism and of discrimination against other religions. The role of vegetarianism in Hinduism is much debated, but it is sometimes used by nationalists as a way of drawing a dividing line between Hindus and non-Hindus.
Iconoclasts
People who want to destroy images. The term is now often used to refer to anyone who rejects established ways of thinking.
Support for slavery
Constantine, who was the Roman Emperor and the founder of the Byzantine empire, like all Roman emperors, permitted the practice of slavery.
Epistemic
Pertaining to knowledge. An epistemic constraint is a limit on what you can know.

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