The issue of fake news hasn’t been far from the headlines since Britain voted to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. These unexpected outcomes have been blamed, in part, on “fake news” circulating on social media sites like Facebook.
There are two problems with fake news. First, it is almost completely untrue, like claims that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President. Second, these fake stories aren’t seen by everyone – just the people who the Facebook/Twitter news algorithms identify as the most likely to read them.
The real problem is that not everyone can tell the difference between fake and real news. Surprisingly, young people growing up in the Internet era seem least able to spot a fake news story.
Scientists think they may have an answer
Having investigated the phenomenon, researchers believe they may have developed a ‘vaccine’ against fake news. Their experiments found that people who are shown real news, followed by a fake news story were much more likely to accept the lies they saw second.
But if the “true” news story referenced fake news and warned about its untrustworthiness first, fewer people were tricked when they came to read the second. The research team now believes that by calling out fake news first, people won’t be fooled when read lies at a later date.
No protection is fool-proof
Obviously there are a few problems with this proposed vaccine. First, story writers must be aware of the details of fake news stories before they can write their own. Which makes writing news even harder than it already is.
Second, the exact same “vaccine” can be used by used by fake news outlets to make their own stories even more credible. Presenting a fake story and discrediting the truth in it could have a similar effect on readers – particularly if they encounter the lies first.
Don’t trust everything you see on social media
The proposed vaccine may help to limit the spread of fake news, but it will never eradicate it completely. Instead we all need to take some responsibility for training ourselves to spot the lies that are published online. We can start by being more sceptical about the popular stories appearing in our timelines until they are checked against a reputable news source.
In fact, Facebook published 10 tips for spotting fake news – and they work very well. By learning to verify the news we read ourselves, the vaccine may become irrelevant.
It is also worth remembering that fake news is often about more than fooling people and influencing their thinking. Fake news sites have been known to host malware that infects computers, stealing personal information, or demanding a ransom after encrypting their data.
Fortunately there is a proven vaccine for fake news-related malware – Panda Security Antivirus. This comprehensive anti-malware kit may not stop you being fooled by fake news – but it will stop your computer being infected.