They circulate in the network with alarming ease, they attract our attention, they seem to give simple answers to complex problems or to explain political, economic and social dynamics resorting to captivating theories of conspiracy. They seduce us, persuade us or scare us and they orient our choices, including those related to elections.
What they are
They are fake news, news that, according to the definition coined by Melissa Zimdars, Professor of communication at the Merrimack College in North Andover (Massachusetts), “fabricate information, disseminate deceptive contents, twist true news in an exaggerated way”. A problem which has become current after the last American elections in which the phenomenon, according to analysts, would have had a decisive impact in the ditching of Hillary Clinton and in the consequent rise of Donald Trump. But also from the analysis of the “social media sphere”, where online fake news proliferate, reaching an indeterminate number of users.
The impact on online journalism
And it is precisely the extreme virality of these contents that has led to a broad mobilisation of media operators with the aim of raising public awareness (especially of the less careful) on the theme. If the false news, in fact, are not an invention of the last decade – just read the article “The true history of Fake News” of the academic Robert Darnton to understand the phenomenon – what changed the attitude towards them is the problem of their diffusion. The digital revolution has transformed journalism. Once upon a time we used to say that the newspapers of the day after printing “were good for wrapping the fish“. Today is no longer like that. A news published on the web remains there until it is removed. Not only: the low costs, the extreme ease with which it is possible to open a blog and the virality ensured by social network, make the internet environment ideal for anyone who wants to deliver to a vast public a garbled message. To this should be added the modalities of publication of the search engines. Google News, for example, uses homogeneous formulas, whether the news is proposed by authoritative portals, or by an unknown website. Is not, in substance, only the reliability of the content to be taken into consideration, but also aspects such as sensational titles and photos and the searches by associated words.
But what is the objective of those who fabricate fake news? There are at least two, not always alternative. First of all, there is the economic one. The fake news, in fact, for the way in which they are structured, attract clicks, allowing (thanks to a system of redirects from one site to another) handlers to collect good profits with the banners positioned or that are opened, often unconsciously, by readers. Then there is a political aim. Deliver easy and unjustified alarmism covering subjects such as health, economic crises and migrants make those parties that propose drastic measures to deal with the issues, grow in terms of popularity. In Italy, recently, there was a case of a web site that was spreading fake political information. Two different investigations have clarified that the portal was part of a broader set of similar organizations ascribable to a company with headquarters in Bulgaria, managed by Italians. An analysis published some time ago by Socialpolitico.it has demonstrated that, for example, the publication of fake news concerning alleged connections between immigrants and increased crime by portals which can be traced back to the radical right, attracts considerable success in the network, by growing fear and generating a climate of intolerance towards foreigners.
How to recognize them
We shall now proceed to review some methods for recognizing the garbage information and to stay away from it. Attention, first, to the source. Often these portals choose names that are similar to those of the renowned newspapers to mislead the reader. This is the easiest method of detection, just pay attention to the URL of the site that opens up. It is then important to check the section “About us”. The most honest of these blogs clearly say that it is satire. If the news reports suspicious statements of a known person, it is always good to do a check, associating on Google the same sentence to the person to whom it is referring to check if it is reported by other news sites. Another method is the one that consists in checking if the link posted actually leads to the site indicated. Many of these sites, in fact, bounce the user from a portal to the other in order to get more clicks possible. Doing a research by images on Google allows you to check if a photo has been published by other portals and if truly concern the news that interests us.
Keeping the attention threshold high is not however sufficient to fight a widespread phenomenon. For this reason, social network, web giants and governments are putting in place measures to contrast fake news. Facebook asked users to report promptly the fake news and who fabricate them. Google, instead, decided to hit the organizations that make profit in this way (with the method of clicks) by blocking their banners positioned inside suspect blogs. Some countries like Germany, want to introduce very heavy fines (up to 50 million). In the meantime, the safest method to contrast fake news is to contact fact checking sites, that verify the truthfulness of the articles published.