Foto Ana Sousa Morais

Ana Mendonça Morais
– Marketing & Communication Strategist –

Fake news is a hot topic worldwide. And it’s not just because there are a lot of accusations, substantiated or not, of fake news. It’s because fake news is a real plague – it spreads at thunderous speed. It is literally going from mouth to mouth. From device to device. I dare even say it’s a digital virus, like a trojan horse.

In this article we are going to understand what is, in fact, fake news and explore some of its best (or worst?) examples, as well as its consequences. And, of course, see how we can identify this fallacious news – or, plainly speaking, how we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Ana Mendonça Morais
– Marketing & Communication Strategist –

Fake news is a hot topic worldwide. And it’s not just because there are a lot of accusations, substantiated or not, of fake news. It’s because fake news is a real plague – it spreads at thunderous speed. It is literally going from mouth to mouth. From device to device. I dare even say it’s a digital virus, like a trojan horse.

In this article we are going to understand what is, in fact, fake news and explore some of its best (or worst?) examples, as well as its consequences. And, of course, see how we can identify this fallacious news – or, plainly speaking, how we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

Fake news – what is it?

Fake news is essentially fallacies presented as truths in news format.

So it is news that presents itself as objective, credible and factual, not being that at all. Still, fake news is not necessarily fake in its entirety. It may be seemingly real news but it also includes disinformation, omission of information or bias of truth in the way it is presented.

We can consider that it has always existed, to the extent that lying and misinformation has always existed as well. It is not exclusive to the digital age – it has always been part of political propaganda, for example. However, today it manages to reach more people, farther away more quickly.

Reality in Portugal

At the beginning of 2020 a study was done that gave us some general indications about the consumption of digital format news in 40 countries, one of them being Portugal – the Reuters Digital News Report 2020.

This study indicates that, of the 40 countries analyzed, Portugal is the second most preoccupied country with the legitimacy of digital content. At least that’s what 76% of respondents say. What about the source of misinformation? In a multiple-choice response:

  • 40,1% say they are concerned about misinformation coming from the government, politicians, or political parties
  • 40,4% say they are concerned about misinformation coming from social networks in general
  • 34,5% say they are concerned about misinformation coming from Facebook in particular
  • 22% say they are concerned about misinformation coming from news sites or apps

There are other sources to be considered, which can be found in the report itself, but these are the most relevant.

On the other hand, and according to the same study, the Portuguese are the ones who trust the news the most, along with Finland – 56% of respondents say they have confidence in national news. Interestingly, most of the time, they have more confidence in the news they actively consume (59.4%) than in the news in general (56.5%).

gráfico sobre os países que confiam em notícias

In other words,… trust seems biased. Considering the results of this study, the Portuguese rely particularly more on what interests them or what captures more attention than in the news in general. And here’s the open door to fake news, which is also biased and often hyped. And with the fake news come the consequences, that we will talk about later.

Deco Proteste also conducted an inquiry to understand how the Portuguese see fake news. Of the 1006 valid responses, it was possible to find that 58% of respondents frequently identify fake news on social networks. 41% identify fake information in “pink” magazines and messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Although to a lesser extent, they also identify fake news in online newspapers and blogs, newspapers or printed magazines or television programs (including news), which puts the good journalism that is done in Portugal in question.

Radio alone had a lower percentage, with only 6% of respondents saying they frequently identify fake news. This may mean that radio stations are less likely to spread fake news, however, you can also simply tell us that the Portuguese don’t pay as much attention to the news on the radio – or don’t even listen to the radio. In this case, it is not a variable that we can analyze.

The truth is that 77% of respondents believe that the spread of fake news is a danger to democracy. As regards punishments, 75% believe that the media of sharing fake news should be subject to heavy fines and 70% argue that journalists who write fake news should be punished.

The best (or worst) examples and their consequences

The case of 5G

The controversy of 5G and fake news has already been addressed in this article, more particularly in the section “The link to COVID-19 and acts of vandalism”, but I remind you of  the subject once again. Briefly, Twitter was the thread for the spread of a conspiracy theory: the new virus coincided with the appearance of the 5G network. But…was it simply a coincidence? Many people felt not and therefore assumed that COVID-19 was a harmful consequence of the 5G network. In fact, in the UK, dozens of 5G telecommunications structures have been set onfire as protest and as alleged defense.

The voice messages of doctors on WhatsApp

With the appearance of COVID-19 in Portugal, many “bench doctors” also appeared. They’re like bench coaches, who pass the games giving advice, but here they are doctors. They always have more knowledge than the rest, access to inside information and know all the tricks to protect the population. And especially in March 2020, WhatsApp was full of these doctors and audios recorded by them.

But in fact, we can never confirm who these doctors really are. We don’t know names, where they work, or their specialty. We’ve never been able to prove their identity, and that alone is a wake-up call.

If the propagation of fake news was already frequent before, with the appearance of a pandemic it certainly worsened.

From the very beginning we have seen, daily, news that is not confirmed to be true. Alarmism, conspiracy theories, false testimony. All of this has had antenna space over the last year. And the speed with which information is obtained, the speed at which it changes and the speed at which the news spreads have only contributed to an explosive recipe for misinformation.

The Social Dilemma – a documentary about the reality of social networks

True news takes 6 times longer to reach 1500 people, compared to fake news.

The documentary The Social Dilemma shows us the consequences of our actions on social networks. And it gives us several examples of the role of social networks in the spread of fake news, such as the Pizzagate case in the US. The information circulating, especially on Facebook, was that pizzerias served as a network of human trafficking, more particularly children, who were kept in basements below the restaurants. A man even entered a pizzeria with a gun to save the children from the basement that didn’t even exist. The curious thing is that Facebook itself was allowing this information to reach people, without them actively looking for it. Its algorithms suggested groups related to the theme to whom it might be interesting according to facebook’s own analyses of users’ profiles.

Of course, this is a case that culminated in exaggeration, which does not always happen. It is also certain that similar networks can exist. After all, human trafficking is still a very real subject today and undoubtedly happens daily. However, this case, had no basis, nor was any work done to verify the information.

This documentary also refers to a study conducted in 2018 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which gives us some interesting data. According to this study, false information is shared more frequently, at a faster pace, more predominantly with a higher reach than true information.

In fact, the study is particularly likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the real news. And that true news takes 6 times longer to reach 1500 people, compared to fake news.

How to identify and filter fake news

The first step to realize the reliability of any news is to read all the information. It is not worth reading only the title or the lead (the initial short summary), since these are often purposely eye-catching – and sometimes even misleading. It is called “clickbait”, a decoy to generate more clicks, reach and, in finally, more revenue.

The second step is to understand the source of the shared information. Have they been published by a credible source or is their origin unknown? Are they real sources? Depending on the type of news, are there studies, witnesses or official statements that support it? It is important to remember that an opinion piece is not news – although these should also have foundation and support.

Therefore, it is important to be demanding with the news to realize its origin and credibility.

The third and final step will be the search. Nothing like seeing if that particular theme has already been addressed by other means, as well as what, when and what has been said. If it is not an exclusive news from Portugal, it is advisable that the search be in English for higher search results. One last piece of advice is to even research the subject with several different terms that require its confirmation or deconstruction. For example, if we want to know more about presidential elections, we can try polls like “the truth about presidential elections “,”lies in presidential elections ” or “schemes in presidential elections”. This may lead us to discoveries that we would otherwise not know and also unmask some fake news.

Become a fake news hunter

If you want to become a “professional detective” in identifying fake news, you can always review the contents of the Fake News course – don’t be fooled. This free course has  been made available by NAU, an online training platform for large audiences managed by the FCCN Unit of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). Although the course is archived, the contents are available for consultation. It is ideal for those who work in the area of communication and media.

In a sense, the best way to protect ourselves and to be more certain about the information that comes to us is to have a critical sense. We should never take anything as an absolute truth, let alone at first sight. Questioning and researching is crucial to gain more knowledge. Only then will we be able to navigate this world, especially the digital one, with greater confidence and conviction in what we consider to be right and true.