• IAN KIRKWOOD: The growing prevalence of fake news

    FALSE ALARM: Part of a text sent to my phone late last year by a reader fearing Armageddon. The work of a foreign intelligence agency or a teenager with a laptop?ONE night late in November, my phone sprang to life with a text from a friend. It was the video pictured, and when I turned it on, still half asleep, it sprang into life with a BBC logo at the bottom of the screen, with a female voice-over describing how troops were being amassed at various borders, together with aircraft carriers and jet squadrons and missiles, for what was effectively WWIII.
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    At each appropriate point of the narrative, the images changed to reflect what was being said. It looked and sounded realistic. It even came with a Twitter message, made to look as though it was being endorsed by a journalist fromThe Economist. The voice was a worry, but “text to voice” software is increasingly prevalent in the online world, so that by itself would not necessarily be a red flag. As a journalist, my first instinct was to seek corroboration. When I searched Google news for “WWIII” there was nothing, and I realised that my friend had been duped by a piece of “fake news”.

    I texted him back, telling him my opinion of the piece, and went back to sleep. But with fake news being such a high-profile topic of discussion during the recent US presidential election, I figured it was worth putting a bit of thought into the matter.

    Unfortunately, when I went back to that video to write this piece, it had disappeared, so I am writing from memory, but it was a pretty professional-looking piece of footage that would have taken a bit of time to write, source film for, and edit. Looking online –where else? –for information about fake news on WWIII, I came across an online story saying that hackers had infiltrated the Twitter accounts of various news organisations as far back as early 2015 to declare WWIII, invoking the names of various world leaders.

    But then I did a check of the source of that story, a website calledInquisitr成都夜总会招聘, there were assertions that the Inquisitr (that’s the spelling they use) itself was a fake news site.

    So who’s to know?

    A recent investigation by America’s NBC news revealed a number of sources for fake news clips posted on YouTube and Facebook during the US presidential campaign, most of them individuals who were creating clips and news stories on their computers or phones as a way of making money through a share of the online advertising revenue.

    Given that one of the most prolific of these was claiming to make $US10,000 ($13,700) a month from fake news, maybe there’s some money in it. That would especially be the case in the Macedonian city of Veles, where an investigation by The Guardian and Buzz found a burgeoning industry of fake news production by some of the town’s tech-savvy youth.

    My initial reaction was to think my WWIII clip must have been made by some sort of intelligence agency as part of the global disinformation campaign that is in turn part of the proxy war being played out in Syria and elsewhere between the USA and Russia. (I could say that I read that on the internet, but there is plenty of critical analysis along similar lines in the mainstream media).

    But as NBC has shown, it could also have come from a teenager called Dimitri, who pays three 15-year-olds $10 a day to help him produce his click-bait stories, some made up completely, others based on straight news stories pinched from mainstream media outlets, and laid out, after a bit of manipulation, on one of his many fake news websites, which are design to imitate real news outlets. Disappointing, isn’t it?So disappointing I’m going on holidays for three weeks. See you when I get back.

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