To Understand Fake News You Must Understand Social Engineering Behind It

Academic research teams are on the case. Here’s a sample of what they’ve discovered.

Last week, I wrote about a big media paradox playing out in front of us — we’re tuning in to the news more than ever, but don’t fully believe what we see.

According to Gallup, only 32 percent of us trust the media. While fake news is certainly a contributing factor, it masks a deeper movement taking shape — one that’s more about social engineering than validity of content created.

These social mechanics have a major influence on what reaches us, our trust in sources and what we choose to believe.

The revolution taking place here won’t be televised. What’s fueling change is happening beneath the surface in digital networks. Through a growing base of academic and expert research we can begin to see the way fake news originates, spreads and how that can inform our collective media literacy. Following are a few sources to help visualize what’s happening:

Hacking the Attention Economy

danah boyd

Danah Boyd, Principal at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data & Society, posts frequently on mindsets and methods of hacking attention. From her studies, she suggests attention hackers initially wanted to show that they could manipulate media narratives through systems understanding and technical skill— and then demonstrate that they could break it. Over the past 15 years, it’s since expanded with a much deeper and broader methodology behind it:

A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.


Pathology of a fake news story

Leon Derczynski

According to Leon Dercznski, a research fellow at Sheffield University, content and network analysis shows that propagation of fake news follows a very distinct and powerful path. Within this post, he dissects the process, showing how scale of attention can be achieved through a new, more diffused form of message dissemination. He says:

Having a very high, rigorous standard of investigation isn’t necessarily related with motivating a large or important part of a population. If you want to present many voters in a swing state of the US, like Ohio, with a certain narrative, there are much more targeted — and cheaper — ways of doing this than getting a big authoritative story on CNN.


Can Elections Be — Bot?

Jonathan Albright

Since the election, Elon Professor Jonathan Albright has done extensive research mapping connections between right-wing websites, social media accounts and the content that links them. His research found that bots play an important part — in certain cases being the loudest voice of all. Expect to see more on this front:

In the networked politics of the future, the deployment of advanced automation strategies will become standard fare for campaigns seeking to shape public sentiment.


Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem

Kate Starbird

Kate Starbird, a University of Washington professor, focused her initial research work on “crisis informatics” — or how information flows after a disaster. But soon she got dragged down the rabbit hole of assessing Twitter-boosted conspiracy theories — and ended up mapping how political moments now take hold.

…“strange clusters” of wild conspiracy talk, when mapped, point to an emerging alternative media ecosystem on the web of surprising power and reach.


Study: Alt-media ecosystem altered broader media agenda

Columbia Journalism

The Columbia Journalism Review recently covered just how powerful and influential these networks can be. Research teams from the Harvard Berkman Klein Center and MIT recently examined the rise and influence of alt-media networks.

Based on analysis of more than a million news articles, social networking behaviors, and patterns that connected them, researchers uncovered a new, sophisticated organizing system at work. The study concluded:

“This sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for conservative media but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda.


In Spite Of The Crackdown, Fake News Publishers Are Still Earning Money From Major Ad Networks

Despite calls to curb fake news and fraud in the digital ecosystem, the money is still flowing. According to Buzzfeed and their Open Labs team, fake news publishers continue to find ways to earn money from major advertising networks, especially content-recommendation ad units, which provide ads made to look like real news headlines. The unfortunate truth:

As long as the traffic is real and the ads are being served to real people, ad networks will accept fake news sites.


There are a number of programs to watch to deepen our collective understanding around this issue, including the forthcoming Field Guide to Fake News from Public Data Lab and First Draft and cross-industry consortiums to help the industry address it — most notably the Jeff Jarvis and CUNY J-School-led News Integrity Initiative which my firm, Weber Shandwick, is a part of.

While these represent a short list of studies and initiatives, it’s by no means exhaustive. Would be great to hear from you on other noteworthy examples we should be looking at.

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