By: J. Z. Conger
Read Time: 8 Minutes
Fake news! It is hard to believe this phrase has been in widespread use for only three years now, brought into our vernacular largely by President Trump. While initially many people saw “fake news” as a vapid, politicized phrase, it has come to describe a very real and very frightening trend in the infosphere: misinformation (passive, accidentally spread incorrect information) and disinformation (active, intentionally spread incorrect information). While some might argue fake news mirrors classic deception, I focus more on the “news” component of the phrase. I see it as false information that is spread rapidly, specifically through media dissemination, and I’ll argue it began in 1895.
Yellow journalism is journalism that exaggerates, embellishes, sensationalizes, scandalizes, and otherwise distorts stories to increase consumer interest and consumption. Ironically, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who are among the most respected and most famous newspaper publishers of all time, were the first to engage in yellow journalism. During 1895–1898, Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s New York Journal competed for the flashiest headlines and most compelling articles. Both journals latched onto the Cuban struggle for independence, and increasingly condemned Spanish interference in the Americas. They attacked the harshness of Spanish rule and praised the nobility of the revolutionaries. Many narratives were false. Sometime after the United States sent the U.S.S. Maine to Cuba, it exploded in the harbor inexplicably. With little information, Pulitzer and Hearst pushed sabotage narratives and called for war (experts today think the ship’s design likely caused the explosion, rather than from a mine). The rallying cry, “Remember the Maine” – reminiscent of a hashtag – impelled Americans to action and convinced President McKinley to support Cuba and begin the Spanish-American War. It lasted four months and claimed over 58,000 lives.
Figure 1: Yellow Journalism America
Yellow journalism and sensationalism seemed to die down afterwards. One of the few exceptions was the National Enquirer, a well-known outrageous, sensationalist magazine developed by William Griffith in 1926 with the help of William Hearst. The Enquirer pushed an anti-military and isolationist agenda during WWII, but it was received poorly. The United States government developed sensationalist material (propaganda) during conflicts (e.g. WWII), but it was a far cry from the uproar caused by Hearst and Pulitzer 50 years earlier. Mainstream journalists largely remained nonpartisan and pursued the objective truth. For the bulk of the 1900s, yellow journalism fell out of vogue. It began slowly revamping under the guise of partisan journalism, beginning in the 1960s. It ballooned in the following decades.
Figure 2: 1962 Operation Infecktion
Journalists overwhelmingly pursued the objective truth until the internet transmogrified into the largest, most effective medium to disseminate information. As in the late 1800s, the truth began skewing once more towards supporting political parties and ideologies. Social media served as both an informational and social function – people could make friends, join groups, and share media with ease. Media outlets discovered that incendiary, polarizing content produced more views – and therefore, more revenue – than denser journalism. Great examples are the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential elections. President Obama ran against John McCain and Mitt Romney. Social media was in full-swing, and outrageous claims and vacuous charges emerged: President Obama was not born in the United States, President Obama cannot speak without a teleprompter, etc. U.S. citizens became riveted by the same form of journalism that started a war over 100 years prior. This pattern has continued today: President Trump this, President Trump that . . . it is so bad that journalists have chased the same claims and investigations for over three years. Yet, the news is always “breaking.”
Today, we have a new name to an old face: fake news. It seduces us for a variety of reasons: authority bias (considering information to be correct if given by an authoritative figure or organization), the third-person effect (perceiving ourselves as less likely to be swayed by the mass media or our own biases), confirmation bias (tending to look for information confirming our own preconceptions), etc. However, two recent developments, enabled by failing academic standards and artificial intelligence, are making it even easier to succumb to . . . while fake news continues its literal warpath, it is critical to look out for research misconduct and deepfakes.
Research misconduct – fabricating or falsifying academic research – will be one of the next big steps in fake news generation. Research misconduct has been around for some time, and has been created by nation states to support foreign objectives. The Soviet Union manufactured fake research implicating the United States as the creator of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, under the code name “Operation Infektion.” Though the scientific community was not deceived, the public was. In the modern world, where news spreads quickly and only headlines matter, the same operations can flourish. Journals covering volatile issues, such as gender, race, and sexuality, seem especially easy to trick into publishing fraudulent research. It is just a matter of time before research misconduct is harnessed once more by foreign powers for sowing dissention, astroturfing, or otherwise influencing the public. Perhaps operations are already in progress!
Deepfakes are another concerning development, which is more well-known and certainly going to be used by nation states. Deepfakes are videos which are produced, with the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) and a talented voice actor (or voice cloning AI), to exactly mimic another person’s speech and mannerisms. It is similar to Photoshop, but with video instead of pictures. Some people, such as Jordan Peele, use this AI programming for humor and to bring about awareness of fake news. Others might use it for movie dubs and videogame development. However, the potential for fake news production makes deepfakes alarming. Deepfake technology is easily procured and requires almost no training, making the prospect even grimmer. Any terrorist or state actor with a smartphone and a deepfake app can release a video with international ramifications. As Jeremy Kahn (Bloomberg) said in 2018, though it has not yet been used for “fraud or an information warfare campaign . . . [it is] the danger that everyone is really afraid of.”
Research misconduct and deepfakes are so concerning because they appear much more credible than traditional fake news. A fake news article can be debunked . . . but a fake news article with an imbedded, perfectly manipulated speech – or a fake news article that cites a fabricated scientific article in a verified scientific journal – will be much harder to debunk. The main worry is that public audiences will be unable to distinguish fact from fiction. The public is already not skilled at detecting fake news, as 23% of adults shared fake news during the 2016 election. Older and younger generations are the most susceptible. Older generations are vulnerable because they tend to misunderstand the manipulations of state actors and the poisons of the internet. Younger generations are vulnerable because they grew up in a culture that encourages Google-searches for everything and values the convenience of headlines over reading full articles.
Many implications can be derived from these new avenues of influence. Democracies can be undermined; populations might be swayed to vote for a candidate based on a provocative or inappropriate deepfake of the opposition. Day-to-day, people might base their beliefs and opinions on false articles, compromising their credibility. Though the outlook is bleak, there are questions one can ask to help safely navigate the infosphere:
1) Research the research; ask the following questions:
a. Is the language in the article written in a way that seems translated by Google?
b. Are there numerous punctuation errors?
c. Did you find the article on social media?
d. What is the purpose of the article? Why would someone spend time researching the information?
e. Is the academic journal itself a real journal?
f. Does the website URL look legitimate? Is it secured (https://)?
g. Does the article use real sources? Do these sources correlate with what the author is saying?
h. Is the research being covered by a verified news site, like BBC?
2) Look closely at videos; ask the following questions:
a. Do the mouth or eyes move in ways that seem “off?”
b. Does the voice sound off?
c. Is the speaker using diction he or she would normally use?
d. Would the speaker ever announce the information presented in the video?
e. Is the information condoned by the parties represented in the video?
3) Think critically; ask the following questions:
a. Is this information coming at a critical moment? Why is the information being presented now?
b. Does the information sound ridiculous?
c. Does the information present controversial political, cultural, or other volatile topics?
d. Is the information viral? Does it enrage you or create other negative feelings?
My solution to fake news is to not watch the news at all. However, like many people my age, I browse Reddit, watch YouTube, and do other activities which expose me to easily manipulated platforms. No one is safe from fake news, and both research misconduct and deepfakes expand the scope and intensify the threat of fake news. Luckily, we have solutions. We need to think critically about the media we consume. We must question everything, and seek information from other sources, even if we do not agree with the source. By becoming better information consumers, we become less quick to judge and more likely to make sound decisions. Lastly, instead of allowing strong emotions and biases to overwhelm us, having a sense of humor can inoculate us against the inflammatory nature of news and politics in the current climate.
J. Z. Conger is an active duty information warfare analyst. He is currently working on an MS in Applied Psychology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.