Erin Steuter debunks fake news

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on March 26, 2017

Dozens of people filled Conserver House to hear Erin Steuter speak on fake news on March 25, 2017. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Thirty-five people attended a public talk aimed at raising awareness about the fake news phenomenon on March 25 in Fredericton.

The “Fighting Fake News: Tips for Aspiring Truth Detectives” event was hosted by the NB Media Co-op as part of the events for its month-long fundraising campaign and followed a Fake News Trivia Event, held a week before.

Erin Steuter is a professor of Sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, who studies the media, including its coverage of the “War on Terror” and the monopoly media ownership in New Brunswick. She opened her talk with the quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on” which, itself, is attributed to different sources.

Steuter began by examining exactly what she considers fake news and defined it as “fabricated news story intended for us to think is real,” saying that most of these “stories” were constructed as “click bait,” which are misleading sensationalist stories often geared toward getting clicks on websites. These are often also sponsored (paid for) content, which is generally required to be identified but hard to spot in the “deluge of media” coming across our screens. According to Steuter’s sources, right now, 75% of ad revenue for The Atlantic and 50% of Slate comes from sponsored content.

Steuter also identified fabricated journalism, stories where “journalists that made it all up” and cited some notorious stories, including “Hack Heaven” by Stephen Glass.

Another complicating factor online is satire, which parodies mainstream journalism, like The Manatee, which has made a name for itself in New Brunswick.

Along with the true fabricated stories, what has happened in recent months are accusations such as characterizing news that is critical of certain political ideas as “fake,” usually done by politicians like U.S. President Donald Trump. This type of accusation has led to the use of words such as “truthiness,” used by comedian Stephen Colbert to describe politicians’ preference for stories, which they “wish were true” rather than “really true.” The other expression that has arisen is “post-truth,” an adjective chosen as word of the year for Oxford Dictionaries in 2016, that means “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Steuter went on to list some of the real-world consequences of this type of made-up news, which she sees as creating conflict, such as in the case of Germany New Year’s Eve news about a church mobbed by Muslims. This also manufactures antagonists and fuels fear, especially from racialized groups, which has a direct impact on people’s lives and spoils community relations. Ultimately, it also creates misunderstandings and can change public opinion.

Steuter cited the “Trans Mountain Pipeline” opinion piece by Duane Bratt, a political science professor from Mount Royal University, that stated “there has never been a spill or leak along the Trans Mountain Pipeline” when the company’s own website contradicted that.

Fake news perpetuates ignorance of the facts, according to Steuter. Getting people to not believe real things leads, in the long run, to “no one know[ing] what’s really true,” something that is increasingly heard. This, in turn, leads to a troublesome declining trust in the news media. Steuter quoted American journalist Ira Glass who “bemoaned the lack of influence of journalism” in society, because without journalism, who will keep politicians in line?

Steuter also gave examples of vigilante justice caused by fake news, in the case of the so-called “Pizzagate,” where accusations of child exploitation were made about a pizza store and repeated by CBS, leading to a gunman going to the restaurant to save the children.

Along with street justice, legislation has been developed based on lies. Steuter showed a recent example of an article about using food stamps to buy marijuana in the U.S. Following the uproar caused by the story, legislation was proposed and passed. However, the most notorious suspected effects were on the 2016 U.S. Election. Studies showed that people who were exposed to fake news stories 75% of the time thought they were true. This was also the case during the British Brexit debate where the “leave Europe” campaign used inaccuracy; fake stories were released in the morning, when they could have the most impact, and then taken down at the end of the day.

Steuter then turned to examine why fake news is on the rise and said that it is simply about where we are getting our stories. Research shows that Facebook referrals account for about 50% of total traffic to fake news sites. “We spread the fake news,” declared Steuter, and certain people can share with lots of friends and followers. Another problem is also that the public is only reading the headlines, believing them, and sharing stories that haven’t been read thoroughly. She identified what she called an “echo chamber,” filter bubbles created by social media, blogs and other platforms that “help” us share information and create a circle of sharing, which preserves the integrity of the information. Steuter shared recent experiments using simulated right-wing and left-wing Facebook profiles and their echo chambers.

Steuter then turned to answer why fake news has spread, citing first political reasons, especially during the recent U.S. election campaign. She cited an example from the Christian Times website that published an anti-Clinton fraudulent election claim.

Steuter declared “people like to make stuff up,” and quoted fake news creators who said “it feels like a drug (…) baiting people into a story.” Steuter called some of these people “digital opportunists,” out to make money. She provided the example of Macedonian teens who generated fake news content during the recent U.S. election to make money.

According to Steuter, advertising revenue can make up to $5,000 per year, which is also incentivizing fake news production. Last year, high school students from St. Catherines, Ontario, made up a story about a national chain of marijuana stores and made $4,000 a month in revenue.

One out of every 7 minutes online is spent on Facebook. Facebook carries fake stories often from fake newspapers, shared millions of times and believed to be accurate. The ads are on the feed and there is a click through rate which is paid by the advertiser to Facebook. When users click on the story, the website is collecting money from the advertisers from the website. Allegedly, one half of Facebook’s ad revenues came from fake news posts in the months preceding the U.S. elections.

On Google, every time users enter search words and click, in the time that it takes for the search to come back, there is a bid for advertisers to have an ad appear for a certain combination of search words using the data Google has on every user. These ads appear on the side or right in the feed. Google AdSense earned $51 billion in 2016 for this. The Guardian newspaper has refused to use this product because its ads were appearing on unreliable websites.

For Steuter, “the cure is worse than the disease.” Google banished 200 publishers for being “fake” but refused to publish the list. Consequently, the website AntiWar.com was evicted for “violent and disturbing” materials, because it was critical of U.S. torture in Abu Ghraib. This stems from the use of algorithms. Steuter cited the example of a Google search for if the Holocaust had happened, and a website about the “Top 10 reasons why the Holocaust didn’t happen” came out as the top result because of the intense activity on that racist white nationalist website. Steuter deplored how easily money “will replace a lie with a fact” and vice versa. In the case of the Holocaust Google search, an individual purchased the top spot to replace the white nationalist website and, more recently, various Holocaust museums are paying to maintain that.

The most recent product is GoogleHome (a device that is voice activated); it uses Google Snippets to search for the best possible answer but often comes up with inaccurate information because of the algorithm.

Everything is formatted to look convincing and genuine on Google; it’s difficult to know what is real and what is not, whatever the platform is being used. It’s a bit easier on a desktop or laptop, but not on phones or tablets. Steuter stated that “media literacy used to teach us to be alert to this, but we aren’t being taught this anymore.” There is also no time to verify accuracy because user-generated content flies off platforms like Twitter and only later is revealed to be phoney.

Publishers have assumptions about how information would be used, as compared with platforms. For example, Steuter is concerned about interactive activities such as popular surveys and quizzes. These are stored by platforms like Facebook or other social media platforms and they might share this information and affect users’ lives. Publishers have guidelines for destroying opinion surveys.

Unfortunately, said Steuter, “fake news is here to stay” because of changes to funding for journalism. The advertiser-funded model is in complete crisis because of the need to cut back and use sponsored content. There are more and more opportunities “to pay for [our] eyeballs,” as Steuter calls it.

As a consequence, there is reduced news coverage. Foreign news is less and less covered because of cutbacks and no one is left to question the powerful. If there is no one to cover the things going on in the legislative assemblies, “what will happen when the last journalist turns off the lights?” This leads to what Steuter calls “Buzzfeedification” of information: smaller and smaller sound and news bites. Some see this in a positive light in that it might be another way to get people interested in getting the news, but it remains problematic because of what news they are getting.

To supplement these changes, more and more people are working in public relations, spinning the news in the government and corporations. Time pressures make press releases feasible to be republished because there is no time or staff to do a story. Because of this, video news reels are also spreading, as stories are put together by companies to promote products and sent to news organizations. Steuter gave the example of pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer. This is advertiser-driven media that allows people and companies to “buy a new reputation” through a favourable story on a reputable website.

Finally, there is also the ownership influence as there are fewer and fewer companies owning media, like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The impact is often significant; Michael Ashley, a climate change scientist from Australia who studied the stance of newspapers in Australia, says that “The Murdoch media empire has cost humanity perhaps one or two decades of time in the battle against climate change.” In an example relevant to New Brunswick, Steuter mentioned the presence of media owners with agendas. With more than 300 companies, Irving has had some “startling examples,” according to Steuter who stated that conglomerates almost always produce conflicts of interest or media self-censorship where news hurting the interests of news organization and/or owners are not covered. NBC, for example, is owned by General Electric.

Analogous to this, Steuter cautioned about sources with agendas such as the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing media think tank, which is quick to be quoted to promote conservative ideas. She also pointed out the government suppression of media and sources, citing the renowned example of Edward Snowden, charged with espionage by the U.S. for being a confidential informant and having found asylum in Russia since 2013. CBC journalist Jacques Poitras was recently accused by Irving of bias in New Brunswick.

According to Steuter, journalist accreditation would not have a positive effect on fake news. She thinks that rather, the threat of legal action against news organizations, should be the mitigating factor. Present in the crowd, STU journalism professor Jan Wong agreed that accreditation would be very problematic because of possible links to the government. Steuter clarified that diversity was and is key to keeping journalism “real.”

Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op. 

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