SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – While misinformation spread by fake news has polluted electoral politics, its dangerous implications extend well beyond that into the realm of business and national security, law and media experts said at the Ninth Circuit’s Judicial Conference Thursday.
“The discussion about fake news often focuses solely on electoral politics, as if that’s substantially the place for concern. Although it is a place of concern, there are other areas that are equally important,” said Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
For instance, Jamieson said, the Securities and Exchange Commission has charged 27 firms with fraudulently promoting stocks using anonymous sources that do not disclose where they’re getting their money.
“The firms trafficking in this sort of viral deception drove up the stock of one company by 925 percent,” Jamieson said. “This kind of undermining of facticity through false use of news channels is undermining our markets.”
Also on the panel was talk radio host and Chapman University law professor Hugh Hewitt, who said foreign intelligence agents can do tremendous damage by implanting fake news via weaponized electronic devices.
“If your business is chaos, and the business of Russia is to create chaos, you’ll create chaos whenever you can,” he said.
The term “fake news” has become synonymous with controversial, objectionable or divisive news stories, depending on one’s political inclination. But Jamieson, who also helps run the Annenberg Center’s nonprofit consumer-advocate group FactCheck.org, warned that this sort of characterization has made the term meaningless.
“In general we’re talking not about anything that has to do with news today, but with viral deception,” Jamieson said, adding that she prefers to call it viral deception. “We ought to use V.D. as the acronym because we need to be clear that you do not want to catch it, you do not want to transmit it and we’d like to say it’s been eradicated.”
Some recent examples include an article on Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president, and a story from a site masquerading as ABC News claiming President Barack Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance. In another instance, a news site calling itself the “Boston Tribune” ran a story claiming Obama’s mother was receiving a $160,000 lifetime government pension.
Hewitt said it’s dispiriting how quickly what he called “the tidal wave of disinformation” can proliferate.
“In the area of national security, it actually becomes quite dangerous. Fake news placed by hacking can cause people in the national security world to overreact or misunderstand capabilities,” he said. “I think this war is overwhelming because you’re not up against a thousand people, you’re up against tens of thousands, often state actors.”
But Paul Singh Grewal, a former federal judge and now deputy general counsel at Facebook, took a slightly more optimistic view. A lot of these fake news sites are driven by financial incentives, mainly getting as many page views as possible.
“There is a financial underpinning to all of this that is just as critical to getting at the problem. They are looking for traffic, anything that might drive users of a service to their website to view more ads, for which they are paid fractions of a penny but which aggregate into millions over time,” he said. “The economics here explain a lot of the behavior, and the political dimensions are important but not the only element to consider.”
Last month, Facebook investors demanded more action from CEO Mark Zuckerberg on fake news at its annual shareholders meeting. Grewal said Thursday that the social network has beefed up its efforts to flag stories with misleading headlines and disrupt distribution, for instance by making it impossible for fake news sites to post modified links that send users to websites that only appear reputable.
“We tend to focus on disrupting the economic incentive and ability to convert all that traffic into real dollars,” he said. “The second thing we do is build new products, we make it easier for fake news stories to be flagged and identified and marked. The third part is focused on educating the public, the users of our services, the readers of these stories, so people are in a better position to understand that even if fake news isn’t marked or vetted as false they themselves can make those determinations.”
Facebook has also started working with fact-checking sites like FactCheck.org “so it’s not just Facebook that’s deemed the arbiter of truth,” Grewal said, adding, “I think that’s important for the legitimacy and accuracy of the calls we’re making.”
A third panelist, Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick, said the courts have also played a part, if inadvertently, in disseminating viral deception by citing fake news articles from amicus briefs, or legal documents filed with the court by people and groups who aren’t parties in litigation but have an interest in the case.
“I don’t think the courts are deliberately pushing out false information, but courts have been uniquely subject to passing along sometimes problematic news, and the Supreme Court hasn’t fully figured out how to correct itself,” Lithwick said. “The best source of that we’ve seen is the rise of the amicus brief. The courts, where they used to get two or three, now get hundreds of briefs and they can cite to Drugs.com or About.com as their source.
“At least at the Supreme Court now, we see that not only is the Supreme Court often citing to the material from the briefs that is either of dubious origin or studies that are questionable, but sometimes citing to things that have disappeared.”
She said one study from two years ago suggested that half the links cited by all Supreme Court opinions lead to dead websites.
While the panel agreed that countermeasures are important, the law hasn’t yet caught up to the problem. One of the few legal routes would be the Communications Decency Act, but it contains strong provisions that protect websites that disseminate speech.
Grewal said the lack of public confidence in traditional media and government institutions has allowed viral deception to grow.
“The reason why some people are willing to click on some of these silly links is because they’re not willing to trust the institution that were in the past reliable sources of information,” Grewal said. “It’s not just the media. It cuts across courts and religious institutions. There’s a general decline of trust, I think, that’s important. Part-and-parcel of that is the mass polarization in this country. If we can acknowledge that these two factors are also contributing to the problem, we can start to get at why these stories have had such significance and popularity.”