A safe for social media

What if the scourge of false news found on the Internet is not the fault of those who seek to manipulate public opinion or artificially-controlled bots?
by Yehia El Amine YehiaAmine

19 March 2018 | 16:00

Source: by Annahar

This picture shows a silhouette of a woman reading on her smartphone. (AFP Photo)

BEIRUT: In Sarah Khoury’s bedroom there is a wardrobe, and inside that wardrobe, there is a safe. Inside that safe is not jewelry or cash or personal documents, but devices: mobile phones, a laptop, an iPod, chargers, and remote controls.

Not long ago, Khoury was the high priestess of baby-boomer tech empowerment, embracing the remarkable bloom of the Internet and its digitally-translated fruit, known as social media.

The 48-year-old mother of three has everything from an Instagram to a Netflix account; she found out, as did all millennials, that the web can cater to her every need, from entertainment and to online cooking classes.

“At first, we helped her set up her WhatsApp to talk to us more often, then it evolved into creating her own Facebook, and eventually she just signed up for the rest of the platforms by herself,” Koury’s 15-year-old, Nadine, told Annahar.

But that quickly changed.

The tech-infused mother started noticing the level of fake news stories being circulated by both herself and her children on Twitter and Facebook.

“I bumped into a number of news articles having inflammatory headlines; obviously, I would share or re-tweet the story on my feed,” she said, adding that “it took me a while to start doubting what I was reading or watching, and went to legitimate news sources that falsified the claims seen.”

Khoury then did what she does best: surfed the web to find answers.

She researched fake news, keywords, read many case studies and academic papers on the matter and educated herself on how to differentiate between reality and fabrication. Khoury’s shaken up perspective of the Internet and its many conundrums has led to both educating her children’s use of social media and the amount spent on them.

This incident doesn’t only speak of a mother’s worry for her children’s use of the World Wide Web, and the quest toward media literacy, but it also raises a far deeper question within the sphere of media consumption.

What if the scourge of false news found on the Internet is not the fault of those who seek to manipulate public opinion or artificially-controlled bots? What if the main problem is ordinary people?

According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which examines the flow of stories on Twitter, people are the main culprits in the spread of misinformation on social media outlets.

As a result, false news travels faster, farther and deeper through the social network than true news.

The study found that the sharing pattern of fake news is applied to every subject they studied, not merely limited to politics and urban legends alone, but also reach the realm of business, science, and technology.

“False claims were 70 percent more likely to be shared on Twitter than their credible counterparts. Factual stories were less likely to be re-tweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top 1 percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people,” the study reported, adding that “it took factual stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.”

Software robots can accelerate the spread of false stories. But the MIT researchers, using software to identify and weed out bots, found that with or without the bots, the results were essentially the same.

“It’s sort of disheartening at first to realize how much humans are responsible,” Khoury told Annahar, “It’s not really the robots that are to blame.”

COVERING THE HISTORY OF TWITTER

The study examined factual and false news stories posted on Twitter dating back to its founding in 2006 through 2017. Their authors tracked 126,000 stories tweeted by roughly three million people more than 4.5 million times.

“The stories were classified as true or false, using information from six independent fact-checking organizations including Snopes, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org,” the study highlighted.

To ensure that their analysis held up in general, the researchers enlisted students to annotate as true or false more than 13,000 other stories that circulated on Twitter.

Again, a tilt toward falsehood was clear.

The way information flows online, and, occasionally, spreads rapidly like a virus, has been studied for decades. There have also been smaller studies examining how true and false news and rumors propagate across social networks.

NOVELTY WINS RETWEETS

The MIT researchers pointed to factors that contribute to the appeal of false news. Applying standard text-analysis tools, they found that false claims were significantly more novel than true ones, maybe not a surprise, since falsehoods are made up. 

The study’s authors also explored the emotions evoked by false and true stories. The goal, said Soroush Vosoughi, the lead author, was to find clues about what is “in the nature of humans that makes them like to share false news.”

The study analyzed the sentiment expressed by users in replies to claims posted on Twitter. As a measurement tool, the researchers used a system created by Canada’s National Research Council that associates English words with eight emotions.

False claims elicited replies expressing greater surprise and disgust. True news inspired more anticipation, sadness, and joy, depending on the nature of the stories.

“The entire ordeal or art, if you want to call it, about false news is its effectiveness in reaching out to people’s emotional side, stirring a reaction that pushes them to either spread the word by simply sharing or re-tweeting, or by taking action,” said Dr. Philip Assaf, a locally-based psychologist who’s currently conducting a study of his own on interpersonal relationships online.

Assaf explained to Annahar that the speed of transmission of false news stories quickens online when it’s shared within a close circle, since people lack a reason to doubt the person spreading the news.

“Creators of false content bank on people’s emotional and trusting side to not question their peers on the source of information, but directly believe what is being relayed to them without the slightest effort of fact-checking,” he highlighted.

TIME TO EXPERIMENT

The study provided an example of two business stories, and how much time it took the factual one to reach 200 re-tweets. The example also shows the judgment calls made by fact-checking organizations.

The first story talked about known fashion chain Zara to be introducing children’s pajamas with horizontal stripes and a gold star. In the article, the company said the design was inspired by what a cowboy sheriff would wear.

But Twitter users posted messages saying the pajamas resembled Nazi concentration camp uniforms.

According to Snopes, the story was true, but it took 7.3 hours to reach 200 re-tweets.

The next story dates back to 2016, where a website republished a portion of a satirical article about how the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain had decided to begin a “We don’t like blacks either” marketing campaign to stir up controversy and boost sales.

It came after the company’s president said he opposed gay marriage.

According to Snopes, the story was false, yet it only took 4.2 hours for the story to reach 200 re-tweets.

WHAT NEXT?

Understanding how false news spreads is a first step toward curbing it, according to Alaa Hakimi, a Lebanese adjunct digital media professor at the University of Cairo.

“What we need to do to move forward is improve the ability to measure such content which would lead to better decision-making that would counteract misinformation,” he told Annahar.

Hakimi acknowledged the challenge in trying to not only alter individual behavior, but also in enlisting the support of big internet platforms like Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter, and media companies.

For Khoury, however, she considers her cleansing acts of enlightenment to be the best way moving forward for both herself and her children.

“You can’t stop a teenager from using the Internet and social media, but what you can do is educate them to know how to use it, while continuously being analytical of what the data being consumed,” she highlighted.

A safe is built to protect people’s most precious possessions, or to lock up the most dangerous of weapons. It feels extraordinary that something as anodyne as a mobile phone could have such unnerving value, such threatening power.


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