Some fabricated stories are annoying but perhaps harmless.
Others, like the Pizzagate fabrication, which easily could have gotten people killed and will probably result in a credulous man with bad judgment spending several years in prison, are dangerous.
Less obvious but no less important is the self-reinforcing cycle in which fake news sites cater to vaccination opponents, who rely on those stories to justify their positions.
What is the effect on public health? It’s hard to tell, but it can’t be good.
A shameless example surfaced on yournewswire.com, a dubious site, on Jan. 15. That story asserted that this season’s flu vaccine is actually causing a dangerous strain of flu.
“Some of the patients I’ve administered the flu shot to this year have died,” an unnamed doctor at the Centers for Disease Control was quoted as saying. “I don’t care who you are, this scares the crap out of me.”
“We have seen people dying across the country of the flu, and one thing nearly all of them have in common is they got the flu shot.”
It went on to argue that, “Flu vaccines actually do not immunize but sensitize the body against the virus,” and went through a by now standard catalogue of discredited arguments against vaccination, such as assertions that vaccines cause brain damage and contain mercury, among others.
The Web analytics company Buzzsumo says that the story had over 700,000 Facebook engagements, though we can’t locate the Facebook post that went that viral. A high level of engagement would be consistent with Australian research on antivax activity on Facebook, which found that ” … anti-vaxxer posts are highly shared, meaning that people frequently “shared” posts on their own Facebook pages or on their friends’ pages.”
Perhaps tied for shamelessness with the one linked above is one published on Jan. 21 under the headline Two More Children Dead After Receiving ‘Disastrous’ Flu Shot, featuring a photo of a grim-faced family carrying a coffin. (The coffin photo was taken in Ireland in 2016.)
- Trump Warns Flu Shots Are The Greatest ‘Scam’ In Medical History (Jan. 20)
- Israel Bans Mandatory Flu Shots Due To ‘Serious Health Concerns’ (Jan. 21)
- Melania Trump Bans White House Staff From Taking Flu Shot (Jan. 22)
h/t Media Matters.
Flu shots are more effective some years than others, and this year’s shot happens to be not all that effective against this year’s worst flu. But it’s a good deal better than nothing, and it’s an enormous leap to assert that the vaccine causes flu. (The idea that vaccines cause the disease that they’re designed to prevent has been rattling around since the 18th century.)
The problem is that it takes so long to make a global supply of a year’s flu vaccine that the decisions have to be made six or eight months before flu season.
In fake news news:
- The Daily Mail ended up apologizing after claiming that Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose party favours independence, had ordered Union Jacks taken down from public buildings on certain royal holidays in favour of the Scottish saltire (the blue-and-white Scottish flag). Several English and Scottish papers presented this as a separatist thing, but it’s a policy that predated Sturgeon.
- U.S. president Donald Trump was booed at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Friday after he attacked what he called the “nasty, mean and fake” press.
- On Wednesday, Pope Francis denounced fake news, which he defined as “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.” “None of us can feel exempted from the duty of countering these falsehoods,” he wrote. “This is no easy task, since disinformation is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms.” Taking the long view, he traced the problem to the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
- Hackers posted a fake story on the Web site of a Lithuanian TV station alleging that Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis had sexually harassed a male radio journalist. Investigators traced the hackers’ IP address to Russia.
- The Dutch daily de Volkskrant has a fascinating insider account of how the Netherlands’ intelligence service watched the Russian hacker group Cozy Bear penetrate the U.S. State Department and White House back in 2014, alerting the NSA so it could play defence.
- University of Washington professor Kate Starbird documents how Russian-linked troll accounts were amplifying both sides of the Black Lives Matter/Blue Lives Matter debate in 2016.
- In CJR, Matthew Ingram argues that “Facebook’s recent News Feed changes not only won’t fix the problem of ‘fake news,’ but could actually make it worse … the problem is that if the new system is designed primarily to encourage conversation and spark reactions, the sites which could get the biggest boost from these changes are the least credible ones — publishers who specialize in either completely fake stories, or stories that have a grain of truth but are wildly exaggerated.”
- The Israeli security firm Checkmarx said this week that a flaw in Tinder means that swipes, pro or con, are visible to anyone on the same Wifi network,Wired explains.
- At thenextweb.com, Abhimanyu Ghoshal explains what it’s like to train a digital tool to imitate your voice more or less perfectly. (You have to read it 24 specific sentences aloud.) “The … problem is that we don’t have a culture, habit, or easily available tools for analyzing spoofed audio,” Ghoshal warns. “Without those, we’re susceptible to falling prey to scammers and those who seek to spread false information.”
- New America (a think tank funded in part by Google) links to a deep dive on how the technology behind what they call “precision propaganda” (I’ve also seen “computational propaganda”) actually works. They look at behavioral data tracking (the data that means that if you look at boots for sale on the Web, ads for boots follow you around for weeks) and what they call “black hat SEO,” used to “trick the algorithm and dominate search results for a few hours of the news cycle before Google corrects the distortion.” BoingBoing has a critical analysis, arguing that ” … the authors touch very briefly on the question of monopoly and anti-trust … any critique of internet-driven propaganda that doesn’t include some critique of late-stage capitalism’s role in allowing for consolidation and dominance by a few players will never be complete.”
- In a speech Friday in Davos, George Soros savaged Facebook and Google, charging that ” … Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it … They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide.” He warned of an “unholy marriage” between the platforms, which know more about us than we would like or in many cases suspect, and the security services of authoritarian countries: “This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.”