When fake news goes viral, blame the media, says study

February 14, 2015 by Rob Lever
Reports about 'Rehana the ISIS slayer' seem 'entirely based on falsities', researchers say. AFP Photo /Mohammed Huwais

It's true. Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

In fact, according to a study by media researchers, many fail to do enough to separate fact from fiction, and often help unverified rumors and reports to go viral online.

"Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement," said the study led by Craig Silverman, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

While news organizations have always dealt with unverified information, practices at some websites may accelerate the dissemination of , said the report, "Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content."

"Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well," the study concluded.

Fake stories are often sexier or more interesting than the real ones, and as such get wider dissemination, Silverman said.

"The extent to which a fake news article can get traction was surprising to me," Silverman told AFP.

Examples cited in the study were rumors spread on Facebook and Twitter that an Ebola patient had been identified in Britain, and another that the disease had been found in Richmond, Virginia. Both reports were untrue.

'Rehana, ISIS slayer'

In another case, a story about a Kurdish woman dubbed "Rehana the ISIS slayer," or the "Angel of Kohane" purported to have killed 100 Islamic fighters, turned out to have no basis in fact even though reports about her spread for weeks last October.

The researchers traced the story to a tweet from Indian journalist and activist Parwan Durani, who published the woman's picture on Twitter and asked people to retweet it.

Rumors spread on Facebook and Twitter that an Ebola patient had been identified in Britain, and another that the disease had been found in Richmond, Virginia were untrue

Stories of her exploits—and reports of her death—were picked up widely by news outlets "but seemed entirely based on falsities," Silverman's report said.

"The simple story of the attractive Kurd who killed dozens of ISIS fighters is a powerful wish rumor. Add in a compelling image and it's perfect for propagation on social networks. The result is that most of us will never know the woman's true story—and the press bears a level of responsibility for that."

Silverman said that even if much of the fake news is spread by "new media" or tabloid journals, the traditional or "quality" journalism outlets often sit by, allowing rumors to gain traction.

"When (fake) information is out there and websites are covering it, there is an imperative on the part of news organizations to look at it, flag it for readers and tell them what we know and what we don't know," Silverman said.

"If we remain silent, the ones who win are the mindless propagators."

And many news organizations fail to follow up when a false report is debunked, the report said: "The explosive claim that ISIS fighters had been apprehended at the US-Mexico border was refuted within 24 hours and yet only 20 percent of news organizations that wrote an initial story came back to it."

A 'disturbing trend'

The findings show "a very disturbing trend," said Bill Adair, a Duke University journalism professor who in 2007 founded the fact-checking website PolitiFact.

"It's particularly disturbing when journalists pass along things without knowing whether they are true or not."

Because of the fast-moving nature of Twitter an other social media, Adair said that "many people including journalists feel that if it's tweeted, it's out there and it's fair game. But news organizations have always had an obligation to check out what they pass on."

Sometimes the sheer number of repetitions of false information makes people believe something is true, the researchers said.

One example of this is the oft-repeated claim that the Obamacare health plan includes "death panels" which decide whether a person can receive treatment.

"Anyone who repeated it—even when trying to debunk it—further implanted it and its negative connotations in people's minds," the report said.

Nikki Usher, a George Washington University professor specializing in new media, said previous research has shown that repeating false information makes it more believable, "but what is different now is the speed with which rumors can unfold."

The Internet's "crowdsourcing" ability can often bring the truth out, but cannot entirely correct the problem, said Silverman, who also operates the @emergentdotinfo Twitter feed that tracks online rumors.

"Over time the truth emerges, but the corrections don't tend to be as viral or get as widely distributed. And they don't always reach the same people," he said.

"I am a believer in the value of the crowd, but the truth is often far less interesting and shareable than the lie."

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6 comments

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kochevnik
2.2 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2015
No joke. Media is still barking "Russia bad Russia bad Russia bad Russia bad" even after the US President Obama admitted he instigated an insurrection to overthrow Yanukovych early 2014 https://www.youtu...NCsT8TjU

Oh and then the alarm over Russian troops in Ukraine despite being allowed by treaty up to 70,000 anytime for any reason. And stupid statements that Crimea is Ukrainian while my gf's aunt was born there, making her Russian, and lived there all her life as Russian and 99% decided they don't want US-paid NAZI stormtroopers invading their homes

While Americans have the memory of a gnat, Russians have very long memory
syndicate_51
5 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2015
Sadly I think this trend of mis-information pervades all aspects of human existence now. News, politics, culture, and unfortunately science as well.
tekram
3 / 5 (2) Feb 16, 2015
No joke. Media is still barking "Russia bad ...While Americans have the memory of a gnat, Russians have very long memory

Putin is a demagogue and so are you. Putin Isn't Worried but You Should Be. Try reading the views of Russians not based in Russia, such as Bershidsky in Berlin.
kochevnik
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 16, 2015
No joke. Media is still barking "Russia bad ...While Americans have the memory of a gnat, Russians have very long memory
@tekram Putin is a demagogue and so are you. Putin Isn't Worried but You Should Be. Try reading the views of Russians not based in Russia, such as Bershidsky in Berlin.
Putin is a leader with 85% support. Your statement is an offense to every Russian and you are a spineless patsy like Bershidsky. Look at his track record. Failed business in France. Working for that emasculated rag Moscow Times which spends all it's energy kissing everyone's ass. Forbes? That State Department orifice? Bloomberg? You mean that Wall Street orifice? You are a joke. Obama sponsored a coup in Ukraine and you don't even register that as offensive because you have the integrity of a coke prostitute
kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2015
@tekram In keeping with the spirit of informed advisers why don't you read up Ron Paul who said 'I Am Not Pro-Putin, I Am Not Pro-Russia, I Am Pro-Facts': http://www.zerohe...o-and-eu Or get your information straight from Russia instead of your Western presstitutes: http://eng.news.k...deo/2784

Unlike western presidents who hide behind closed doors our leadership (at the moment) is not afraid to talk to citizens on live camera. And yet you call him a demagogue, you twit! Your hatred is laughable and confirms Russia is doing something right!
kochevnik
not rated yet Feb 20, 2015
Crimea was collateral for the Rothschilds when they funded Lenin and the Bolsheveks in 1917. Instead of defaulting on the debt with payment due in 1945, Stalin transferred Crimea to Ukraine which he made a separate nation in the UN. Ukraine has been the custodian of Crimea. With NAZIs controlling Kyiv Crimea demanded return to Russia. Rothschilds want NAZIs in Ukraine, but are torn as they want Crimea as Jewish land. My gf pointed out "Russian Jews have a historic right on which to base their land settling activity in the Crimea...If the question of Jewish right to colonize Crimea is raised it must be remembered that the Jews have a right to claim to be autochthons of all the northern coast of the Black Sea. As early as the ancient Bosphorean empire, before the Christian era, colonies of Hellenized Jews have flourished on the Black Sea coast. "

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