Real fake news articles feature fabricated stories crafted to push a particular agenda. In most cases, the thesis of the article is supported by alternative facts (lies). But there are more subtle, more insidious types of fake news. Specifically, articles that might pass a cursory fact check, but have been written to espouse a point of view unintended by the original author. Here’s a quick case study that demonstrates the technique and clearly illustrates why it will be nearly impossible to stop.
Last week I wrote a relatively popular article entitled “Facebook: Ministry of Truth?” It was published on my own website, as an opinion piece on LinkedIn, and in the digital opinion section of AdAge, where I am a weekly contributor. The thesis of the article is that in my opinion, Facebook’s idea to survey its users about the trustworthiness of any particular news source is misguided. I stated the problem, cited examples of what might go wrong, and offered a solution.
A few days later, a pull quote from my article appeared on Yahoo News in an article entitled “Facebook admits social media threat to democracy” by Rob Lever for AFP (Agence France-Presse, a French news site). Mr. Lever’s name is not linked to anything, and if you use the search box on afp.com, his name does not yield any recent results. That said, he’s easy to find on Google, and he looks like a pretty busy writer. He’s verified on Twitter, and he has a solid profile on LinkedIn. By all accounts, he’s a professional writer. But is he a trustworthy journalist?
Importantly, I am not a journalist. I am a business advisor, a commentator, and a professional purveyor of my own opinions. I do my best to research my work, and I take great care to link to sources I cite (many editors, though, remove links they believe to be extraneous – which is both annoying and unfair). In any case, I always make it clear that my writing is opinion and commentary, not “news.” My conclusions are my own, and I encourage Socratic discussion about the topics I cover. Most of my posts end with an author’s note: “This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.”
Mr. Lever chose to paraphrase what I wrote and to quote directly from my article:
But technology columnist Shelly Palmer warned that Facebook appeared to be equating trust and truth with what the public believes — what some call “wikiality.”
“Wikiality is Facebook’s answer to fake news, alternative facts, and truthiness,” Palmer wrote. “Facebook, the social media giant, is going to let you rank the news you think is most valuable. What could possibly go wrong?”
Mr. Lever uses what I wrote to support his idea in his article that “Facebook admits that social media is threat to democracy.” I do not agree with Mr. Lever’s statement. I believe his sentiment is misguided in the extreme.
Is Mr. Lever’s article fake news?
He never spoke to me, did not cite or link back to my original work, did not even mention my article, and did not use the quote in its correct context, that is, the thesis that I wrote my article to support. In Mr. Lever’s article, the quote from my article is just words attributed to me. He has used my words without proper citation to further his own ideas. This manipulation of my writing is at least disingenuous and at worst nefarious.
But is it fake news?
Mr. Lever’s article has propagated and promoted a point of view I do not share. So that part is fake. And thanks to Yahoo News and Mr. Lever’s excellent click bait headline, it has gone very, very wide. Thousands of people have tweeted, retweeted, posted and shared several versions of the article. Critically, each share adds editorial credence for members of the respective social networks. If you learn about something from inside your echo chamber, and it feels true, you are very likely to accept it as such.
Along with the original version of Mr. Lever’s article, a quick search yielded the following:
Phys.org – Facebook admits social media threat to democracy (Update)
France24 – Facebook vows to tackle social media threat to democracy
Daily Sabah – Facebook admits social media could pose a threat to democracy
Lifestyle Magazine – Facebook vows to tackle social media threat to democracy
There were several more, but these few support my argument. In the above examples, the titles are slightly different, and the article has been slightly rewritten. In all of the above examples, the writing credit goes to AFP, the news agency, not to Rob Lever.
This story has gone from one writer’s opinion (mine) to another writer’s subjective interpretation of that opinion (Rob Lever’s) to fake news (AFP). Was Mr. Lever’s writing an innocent manipulation of published work? Is he just a poor journalist, or is he an awesome journalist being paid to propagate the idea that somehow Facebook and social media are bad for democracy?
I don’t want to pick on Mr. Lever. I don’t know him or what his motivations might be. I just wanted to share with you that my words, which accurately communicated my opinions, were twisted to support a thesis I do not agree with. Then that misrepresentation was widely propagated.
Most Quotes Are Out of Context
Most quotes are out of context; that’s not new. But when a professional journalist quotes you in an article, usually you are clearly identified and the thesis of the article is in line with your thoughts. When professional journalists use pull quotes, the quotes are – or they should be – linked back to the original article, so even if the quotes are used out of context, it’s easy to find the original article and to quickly ascertain the original author’s true meaning.
What makes Mr. Lever’s use of my writing different is that I was not contacted, the pull quotes work for an alternative point of view, and the writing mistakenly suggests that I share that point of view. The damage is done, and only a fraction of the people who read the Yahoo News piece and its offspring will see this article calling out Mr. Lever’s misrepresentations.
So Easy You Can Do It By Mistake
If it is this easy to create fake news with a pull quote from an opinion piece, imagine how easy it is when the writer has malicious intent. It doesn’t take long to see how this kind of manipulation of published works can be used to push conspiracy theories or populist views.
Will It Ever Be Worth The Resources To Police?
There is one more thing to learn from this particular case study. Unless you are specifically looking to fact check the quotes, there is no way to flag any of Mr. Lever’s writing as fake news. If an algorithm could be written to do the fact checking, it would not call Mr. Lever’s misrepresentation as an error. Even if an AI system were trained to fact check, it would look at my original article, find the quote, and assume Mr. Lever’s writing was correctly pulling the quote. No matter what tools are used, determining that such erroneous reporting is fake news requires more resources than most people would be willing to commit.
Some food for thought as Facebook and other social media sites face existential questions about their value to society.
Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.