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Potential impact of fake news hysteria on content creators

After Donald Trump has won the presidential election, many anti-Trump activists began blaming so called "fake news" stories on social media as the cause of his victory. As the hysteria spread, the major user-facing tech corporations, such as Facebook and Google, felt forced to come up with a plan to combat the spread of fake news on their platforms.

Many ordinary people have welcomed the fact that issue of fake news is being dealt with. After all, nobody likes to be fooled by misinformation or propaganda and most people believe that it is unfair to earn large sums of money by coming up with dishonest clickbate headlines instead of producing something of genuine value. However, the subject of fake news is not as simple as it may seem and the backlash against the practice may have unintended negative consequences.

When an organisation publicly blames the spread of fake news for the victory of a particular presidential candidate, what that organisation implies by this message is that ordinary people, the majority of the population of the country, are too stupid to think for themselves. Therefore, if somebody is trying to convince you that you have made a particular decision based on a deliberate campaign of social engineering, quite often it is an indication that they see you as intellectually inferior to themselves and as a person who is incapable of critical thinking. This is despite the fact that the internet wasn't built yesterday. Therefore it is safe to assume that the majority of its users fully realise that not everything published on the web is to be trusted.

However, there is another more sinister side to the backlash against fake news by the major IT companies. Neither Google nor Facebook have a very good track record of protecting its users against inappropriate content. Both of these companies, along with other major tech corporations (e.g. Twitter), deliberately define inappropriate content in very vague terms, so they can use their policies as a tool for any kind of censorship that a particular group of a company's employees will see fit. For example, Facebook came under fire recently for removing a well-known historic photo from the Vietnam war, because the photo had a naked child on it. Twitter, however, is known to be much more extreme when it comes to political content that its employees don't like. For example, it has permanently closed the account of Milo Yiannopoulos for critisising new Ghostbusters movie as a feminist propaganda. It did the same to several accounts of key members of American Alt-Right movement. Although some of the accounts were closed for posting genuinely racist twits, many were closed for nothing more than pro-conservative political commentary.

Google proposed to target fake news by demonetising their publishers, which means preventing any Google-owned advertising services on their websites from earning any money. This is what Google did for a long time to prevent the spread of undesirable content on its platforms. However, as many bloggers found recently, Google sometimes abuses its power of demonetisation. Dave Cullen, for example, who runs a Youtube channel Computing Forever, has published a video titled "4 Reasons Not To Vote For Hillary Clinton". The video proposed some rational political arguments in a polite manner. However, to his surprise, Google, the owner of Youtube, decided that the video comes within its vague definition of "inappropriate content" and removed monetisation from it.

Based on the above, it is safe to assume that the major tech companies are about to start using the vaguely-defined "fake news" as the excuse to censor even more material on its platforms. Any political commentary can be defined as news, so your content can be removed or demonetised (or, worse yet, your account blocked) if an employee of one of the above companies disagrees with your point of view. Also, if an article does describe some recent events like any news article does, there is often no easy way of telling whether these event are real or not, especially if the article has been published on an independent media platform. Now, anyone who doesn't want the public to know about these events can censor the article out under the pretense of protecting its users from fake news.

It is not only independent alternative media outlets who spread fake news. Mainstream media are guilty of it to. This is not only limited to left-leaning channels which stated that Hillary Clinton was well ahead in the polls before she has lost the presidential race. In 2014. during annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, RT (which stands for "Russia Today") has stated that the armed people in the military uniform were "local volunteers", despite the fact that these people were wearing the uniform that only Russian military wears and were armed with modernised AK assault rifles that is only issued to the Russian military. In the winter of 2015-2016, large swathes of Lancashire and Yorkshire in northern England have suffered from severe flooding. At the time, British newspaper The Independent has attributed God-like powers to the British government by stating on its front page that the government would not allow this to happen in the south of England. However, just 2 years earlier Somerset, Berkshire and Surrey, all of which are counties in the southern England, have also suffered from heavy flooding. British daily newspaper Mirror, which refers to itself as "the intelligent tabloid", contained an article warning the readers that counterfeit spirits may contain ethanol instead of alcohol, which can make people blind or even kill them, despite the fact that ethanol is the alcohol that people drink to get tipsy and methanol is the type of alcohol that can cause blindness or kill. These are only few examples of such a common occurrence of inaccurate information getting into the mainstream news either negligently or deliberately. However, due to the fact that all of the mainstream media outlet pay substantial sums of money for their social media posts to be "boosted" and for their headlines to appear in sponsored search results, it is very unlikely that they will suffer any consequences from fake news witch hunt.

As strange as it sounds, the news stories that are genuinely and deliberately fake actually serve a useful function. Just like harmful microbes and bacteria strengthen the immune system of your body, web-based misinformation strengthen the immune system of your mind. Of course, with the widespread presence of bogus stories, there is a strong chance that you will eventually learn to be skeptical and develop the skill of critical thinking, so you will grow into a person who cannot be easily fooled. If most of the websites contained reliable and trustworthy information, the public would become conditioned to fully trust the web. This would create a ripe harvest for a scammer or an aspiring dictator.

In summary, anyone who tells you that fake news can influence your decisions really think that they are superior than you and that you lack intellectual capacity for critical thinking. Under the pretense of fighting the spread of misinformation, global social media and search engine companies can censor content that their employees don't like, just like they previously did it under an ambiguous definition of "inappropriate content". Finally, we actually need people to occasionally publish bogus stories online, so we can develop the skills of rational and critical thinking.

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Posted on 26 Nov 2016

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