Scientists call for action in fight against ‘fake news’

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Legal scholars, social scientists, and researchers are joining forces in a global call to action in the fight against “fake news.”

The indictment of 13 Russians in the operation of a “troll farm” that spread false information related to the 2016 US presidential election has renewed the spotlight on the power of “fake news” to influence public opinion.

“It’s such a complex problem that it must be attacked from every angle.”

Filippo Menczer, a professor in the Indiana University School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, is a coauthor of a paper appearing in Science that calls for a coordinated investigation into the underlying social, psychological, and technological forces behind fake news. This is necessary, the authors say, to counteract the phenomenon’s negative influence on society.

“What we want to convey most is that fake news is a real problem, it’s a tough problem, and it’s a problem that requires serious research to solve,” says Menczer, who is also a member of the Inidiana University Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research and founder of the IU Observatory on Social Media, a platform that provides tools for identifying automated social media accounts and analyzing the spread of misinformation across social networks.

The paper includes estimates that the number of automated “bots” is 60 million on Facebook and up to 48 million on Twitter, the latter based upon a recent study by Menczer and colleagues. It also cites an analysis that found the average American likely encountered one to three fake news stories in the month before the 2016 US election.

“The spreaders of fake news are using increasingly sophisticated methods,” Menczer adds. “If we don’t have enough quantifiable information about the problem, we’ll never be able to design interventions that work. This paper is really a call to groups across the globe—academics, journalists, and private industry—to work together to attack this problem.”

This includes the tech companies that create the platforms used to produce and consume information, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The authors say these companies have an “ethical and social responsibility transcending market forces” to contribute to scientific research on fake news.

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Additionally, the article’s authors point out that false information affects not only the political sphere but also areas not previously regarded as political, such as public health topics like nutrition and vaccinations, as well as the stock market. They also say the problem is particularly intractable because some research has found that repeating a lie to correct it can actually ingrain false information in the mind.

One solution Menczer and his colleagues propose is rigorous research into the effectiveness of high school courses that help students recognize illegitimate news sources. They also propose specific changes to the powerful algorithms that increasingly control people’s access to information online.

“The challenge is there are so many vulnerabilities we don’t yet understand and so many different pieces that can break or be gamed or manipulated when it comes to fake news,” Menczer says. “It’s such a complex problem that it must be attacked from every angle.”

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Additional authors on the article are from Harvard University; MIT; Tufts University; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Dartmouth College; Yale University; Microsoft; Columbia University; the University at Toronto; and Syracuse University.

Source: Indiana University