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Hot Topics in Security and Safety

The Growing Threat of Fake News

August 14, 2017
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
Director
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought the phenomenon of fake news into the spotlight. A combination of misinformation (false or incorrect information that is spread intentionally or unintentionally without realizing it is untrue) and disinformation (intentionally false or misleading information that is spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences) about the candidates was rapidly spread online, particularly through social media networks. From individuals to automated “bots,” non-mainstream media, and in some cases, even mainstream media, these false stories were shared widely and strategically, infiltrating social media feeds.

Should we really be concerned by the fake news phenomenon? Is it just another transient trend or could it have more significant implications? Over the last few months, there have been numerous articles published on the potential threat posed by fake news, including a document from Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) on the threat this phenomenon could pose to Canada’s democratic process. There are a number of reasons why we should be very concerned.

1. Influencing Elections

The potential for fake news to successfully influence election outcomes has been hotly debated. Although U.S. intelligence agencies stated that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election through the propagation of fake news and other actions, there was no definitive conclusion as to whether this had been successful. The reach of fake news stories during the presidential election appears limited in any case, and it would be difficult to prove if this type of activity had an actual effect on this election’s outcome. But the myriad of approaches outlined in CSE’s report indicates that the media, politicians, and public opinion could be attacked through fake news. Some of these approaches were observed during the 2017 French national elections. While we do not yet have evidence to definitively prove that fake news can influence an election outcome, the growing use of fake news as modern propaganda and an influence-operation tool against democratic processes is highly concerning.

2. Anyone Can Generate Fake News

Many of the reports on fake news campaigns against elections name Russia as the driving force behind the campaigns. But the tools for generating and propagating major fake news campaigns are not restricted to nation-states—they are available on the underground internet or through the abuse of legitimate services. Essentially, anyone can purchase a fake news campaign to do anything from discredit journalists to influence public opinion. These campaigns can be used to drive the sharing of specific content, bombard social media accounts, and create and propagate a range of false stories as required. Nation-states with access to these massive fake-news-generating tools are a concern, but if the general public now has access, the threat posed by fake news has increased significantly.

3. Generating Spontaneous Trouble

In 2011, London and other parts of England experienced some of the worst riots in years. Social media, mobile messaging, and unsubstantiated rumours on conventional media were blamed for inciting and encouraging the riots. There were posts on Twitter stating that there were riots in areas where nothing was happening, potentially as a means to instigate trouble in new areas. I lived in London during this time and personally observed fake tweets indicating that there was trouble in my East London neighbourhood when nothing was happening at all. While these tweets were shared and liked by some individuals, many local Twitter users were countering the fake tweets with pictures of the neighbourhood and reports that there was nothing happening. But if those who wished to instigate trouble had access to some of the fake news tools mentioned above, they could have created a tsunami of fake messages with likes and retweets that would have pushed them to the top of peoples’ social media feeds, burying any attempt by individuals to counter the false information. Essentially, all anyone would see is the false information reporting trouble in the neighbourhood, which could draw attention to the area and actually create an issue. With the widespread availability of engines to generate massive streams of fake news comes the ability to incite and encourage trouble on a scale and speed that would dwarf what was witnessed in England in 2011.

It seems that the phenomenon of fake news is set up to challenge us in a number of ways. While fake news may seem like a trivial issue to some, the potential to sway opinion and influence democratic processes, as well as the growing availability of the tools to generate substantial fake news campaigns, means that it is an issue that we should not ignore. The challenge we face is what should we do about it? Fact-checking sites have emerged and grown in popularity over the last year. There are discussions about educating people around information verification, which also helps them to stay safe online. Some social media companies are taking steps to tackle the issue on their platforms. And governments are discussing the potential for legislation to help curb the proliferation of fake news. Each approach has its merits and limitations in dealing with this complex problem. But it is an issue that we should not ignore or brush off as a transient trend as it has the potential to have a significant impact on our society today. 

I will be chairing The Conference Board of Canada’s 2017 social media conference on October 30 and 31 in Ottawa, where we will discuss the issue of fake news.

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