The war on fake news


Twitter posted alerts reducing the visibility of Donald Trump's tweets when they violated the social network's civic integrity policy. — Donald Trump/Twitter/AFP

From Covid-19 to the US presidential election and talk of vaccines, 2020 has seen its share of fake news on social media. This veritable "infodemic" of misinformation has forced platforms and states to take action. In 2021, a dual combat will need to be led simultaneously on economic and political fronts, especially with an upcoming French presidential election in view.

"The phenomenon of misinformation is growing bigger and the stakes are high for democracy," explains David Lacombled, president of La Villa Numeris, a French think tank on the digital economy. In 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic, fake news engulfed the media, from TV to social networks and private messaging applications. And anxiety helped fuel the viral nature of such content.

"We are in such a state of such shock that we need to unburden ourselves, and the best way of offloading some shocking news is by sharing it," the expert explains.

This wave of fake news is notably spreading via private messaging services, but also via accounts of public and political personalities with millions of followers worldwide. Take Donald Trump, the outgoing president of the United States, whose comments were found to be the basis for almost 38% of English-language media articles containing erroneous information on Covid-19, according to a study from Cornell University in the United States.

Social networks: fake news accelerators

"We thought that the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, especially with the Cambridge Analytica affair, were the peak of misinformation, but 2020, with Covid and the latest election, has also been fertile ground," explains Tariq Krim, the French tech entrepreneur and founder of the Netvibes website.

For proof of this, look no further than the recent success of Pierre Barnérias's controversial documentary Hold-Up, which got the world of conspiracy theorists buzzing Nov 11 on social media.

"Misinformation has always existed, but with social media, it has taken on a really worrying dimension," he adds.

Facebook, in particular, has found itself in the firing line. In March-April 2020, at the time of France's first lockdown, the American activist association Avaaz revealed that 42 Facebook pages alone had generated around 800 million views sharing health-related misinformation.

"Usage of fake news has several effects: the first is that it increases the audience and therefore the profitability of platforms; the second is that the audience can participate by sharing this news," explains Tariq Krim. So there's an obvious economic stake for the likes of Facebook, Twitter et al.

"Sometimes, advertisers find themselves funding what has become a veritable market for fake news without even knowing it. In my book, S'informer demain, I highlight a report from an association that shows that €70mil served to finance producers of fake news in 2019," states David Lacombled.

Promoting the slow web, a peaceful place

There's no denying that misinformation is a gold mine, so what can be done to fight the spread of fake news on social networks?

"If we want to take on the platforms, we also need to take on the toxic economic model that favours the most violent content because it keeps web users on tenterhooks. It's an alternative vision that has to be championed, especially in Europe, to bring web users' interest and well-being back to the forefront. It's what I call the Slow Web, the equivalent of the organic movement for technology," suggests Tariq Krim.

For David Lacombled, the fight will also have to be global in order to come up concrete and effective solutions in the fight against the fake news infodemic: "Systems for fighting the manipulation of information need to be established, and be a bit more effective, because this phenomenon has been known about for a long time. But it feels like solutions are slow to come about.... Countries like ours must adopt a slightly stricter stance in the domain, even if only to assert our value system."

Platforms make pledges

This alarming analysis has evidently led Mark Zuckerberg's platform to take action, such as ramping up moderation, adding warnings to certain posts fact-checked by groups and third-party organisations, and even deleting groups and articles responsible for spreading false information. The social network has pledged to remove all posts spreading fake news. Plus, political ads are banned on Facebook until January (except for the Senate election in Georgia). And it's the same story on YouTube, which pledged to remove videos contesting Joe Biden's victory in becoming the 46th US President.

For its part, Twitter is trying – as best it can – to increase moderation on the platform. The social network has, for example, introduced warning messages that encourage users to read articles before sharing them. The platform has also put in place warnings on certain tweets containing false information. In this respect, Donald Trump's account has been flagged as dubious several times.

When censorship looms

And yet, platforms will have to take care not to fall into playing the thought police and risking seeing their users flee:

"If platforms go about this (kind of) regulation and education on their own and too often, it will be unbearable. In the name of what, is Facebook going to define what should be good and bad values? They will very quickly be reproached for that. When I talk of consensus, that's exactly why all the players of civil society need to be involved. There should be representatives from the media, journalists, consumer associations, child protection and citizens who want to have their say," outlines David Lacombled.

"Not everything should be taken at face value. It's a bit like what Twitter is doing with its new functions, where, before retweeting an article, it asks if you've actually read it. That makes you think, the first time, and it doesn't restrict you in your freedom to share it or not. And that's really what's difficult in a country like France, which is very attached to the idea of freedom," he continues.

Ultimately, that will prove decisive. Excessive moderation carried out by platforms could stir mistrust among users, who might fear losing their freedom of speech. This question is even more important since France is gearing up for its own electoral campaign ahead of the 2022 presidential election.

"The risk is real, because social networks are simply an indicator of the gulf that exists between the public and institutions. You just have to look at the debate around the Covid-19 vaccine to realise that we have a lot of work ahead of us," warns Tariq Krim.

Generation Z on the front lines

In 2021, social networks will have to take responsibility for their role in the viral spread of fake news. That's an essential factor if they want to continue to appeal to Generation Z, who can be highly sensitive to brands' stances and commitments.

"In the vast majority, people will always prefer quality content, and that's a blessing for traditional media and news agencies," considers David Lacombled. "It would be wise – for social media as well as public authorities and the media – to count on a (part of the) population that knows exactly how these networks function.... We have a lot to learn, but for that, we have to trust them and allow them to educate in turn their parents and grandparents." – AFP

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