Fake News: How to destroy trust and poison democracy

A presentation in the Thinktalk series

Organised by Selwyn Community Education 

Selwyn College Auckland 26 June 2018


Fake News: How to destroy trust and poison democracy. You might think that sounds like a gross over-statement. I hope by the time you have finished reading this you will come to see that it is too close to the truth for comfort.

Let me begin by showing you how easy it is to make sophisticated material that has all the appearances of truth when, in fact, it is not. I would like you to view this short video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQ54GDm1eL0

That public service announcement entitled “You Won’t Believe What Obama Says in this Video” appeared on the Buzzfeed website in April this year.

Of course, you immediately recognised President Obama. Then you were a little surprised to hear that comparatively reserved former president call Donald Trump a dipshit. You were even more surprised to find that President Obama did not say that at all.

Award-winning film-maker Jordan Peele and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti created the PSA to show how easy it is to manipulate videos, furthering the spread of misinformation and fake news. “You Won’t Believe What Obama Says in this Video” was created using Adobe After Effects and FakeApp, an application that lets you “faceswap” videos. Peele, impersonating Obama’s voice, wrote and performed the script. BuzzFeed then used about two minutes of Obama footage with Peele’s mouth edited in and 10 minutes of real Obama footage. It ran FakeApp on the clip for a total of 60 hours to fine tune the video.

The result was what you saw: A credible, seemingly undeniable, video of the former occupant of the White House.

How easy is it to get your hands on FakeApp? Real easy…because websites like Buzzfeed and Vox conveniently included a link to the download site in their story about Jordan Peele’s video.

Digital technology has made the production of credible fake news almost too easy. However, fake news is not a product of the digital age. It pre-dates computers by centuries. Julies Caesar was a master of fake news. He used it to justify the annexation of Gaul. Napoleon used it to wriggle out of a particularly embarrassing episode of his campaign in the Middle East – the abortive siege of Acre. And in the late nineteenth and the 20thcenturies it was common. So common that Puck, an American satirical magazine much like Britain’s Punch, appears to have coined the term that President Trump falsely claims as his own.


To put it more accurately, we believe ‘fake news’ made its first published appearance in Puck in 1894, at a time when cheap newspapers combined with competition and sensationalism – the battle between press giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – gave rise to the era of ‘the yellow press’. And in the 20thcentury of course, it reached new heights, or perhaps depths would be a better term.

Adolph Hitler and his minister for propaganda Joseph Goebbels were masters of the craft. They carried out acts that were then blamed on others in the Nazi-controlled media to justify retaliation – the Reichstag fire of 1933 and the attack on a radio station in the lead-up to the invasion of Poland are two examples. And, of course, their horrendous anti-Semitic propaganda remains a dark blot on history. A 1939 issue of Der Sturm (The Storm) claiming Jews carried out blood sacrifice of children was the papers’ best-selling issue. All were testament to Hitler’s belief, set out in Mein Kampf, that The broad mass of a nation…will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”

But Nazi Germany was not alone in trading in fake news. The Soviet Union was equally adept and developed a special knack for dealing with victims of Stalin’s frequent purges.

Even in the days before image manipulation software, images were doctored to manipulate reality. Those who fell out of favour with Stalin simply ceased to exist. Sometimes it was no more than judicious photo cropping (nothing wrong with that) but, when people like Trotsky fell from grace pictures were retouched to remove their images. They were literally erased from the record.


Of course, in the digital age it’s even easier. A more recent example involved a picture taken in the White House incident room when US special forces killed Osama bin Laden. The photograph, released by the White House, showed President Obama, his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and security staff engrossed in reports from the raid.The New York Hasidic newspaper, Der Tzeitung(The Time), digitally removed Hillary Clinton and counter-terrorism analyst Audrey Tomasen out of the image apparently under a policy that the paper didn’t include images of women because they could be considered sexually suggestive. They seemed obvious to the fact that they had recast history.

So fake news pre-dates Donald Trump, but his rise has given a new currency to phrases like fake news, alternative facts and post-truth (the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016). What do they mean in 2018?

In a small book that aims to take the reader through a history of truth, the British modern philosopher Julian Baggini grapples with the concept of post-truth. He believes it’s the result of a form of defeatism. He says “We no longer have the resources to discern who’s telling the truth in the digital avalanche that confronts us each day. So, feeling unable to distinguish truth form lies, we lose trust in our brains and tend to go with our guts and hearts instead.”

And that’s why, when photographic evidence showed conclusively that more people witnessed the Obama inauguration than the Trump inauguration, Sean Spicer was able to claim the opposite and be backed to the hilt by his colleague Kellyann Conway who gave us the phrase “alternative facts”. Both Spicer and Conway guessed that Trump supporters would choose to believe what they wanted to believe and their guess was right: A YouGov survey conducted later showed that 40 per cent of Trump supporters thought (wrongly) that the Obama photograph showed the Trump ceremony. The alternative facts effect went further. When told which inauguration was pictured, they thought the Trump photograph contained more people than that of his predecessor. They were willing to let their eyes deceive them.

Doubtless they will continue to believe what emanates from the Trump White House in spite of the fact that the Washington Post’s ongoing Fact Checker disclosed that in his first 497 days in office, President Trump had made 3251 false or misleading claims.

Fake news takes a number of forms and I’ll briefly outline them but first let me share a particularly accurate definition – weaponized lies. That’s the title of a book that uses critical thinking as a defence against fake news. Its author Daniel Levitin says that what weaponizes the lies is not the media nor Facebook. “The danger,” he says, “is in the intensity of that belief – the unquestioning overconfidence that it is true”. So fake news thrives because sufficient people WANT it to be true.

The five principal forms of fake news:

  1. A falsehood deliberately distributed to undermine a person or an institution. An example was the statistical misrepresentation during Brexit claiming that £350 million was sent to Brussels each week – ‘Let’s fund our NHS instead’ –when EU membership costs were, after rebates and other cross payments, less than half this figure.
  2. A falsehood distributed for financial gain through click-based advertising on social media. A cottage industry based in Veles in North Macedonia distributed outrageous but eye-catching stories (such as claims of a Democrat paedophile ring run out of a Washington pizza parlour) and was handsomely rewarded when thousands of ‘clicks’ attracted algorithmic advertising.
  3. Parody and satire shared on social media as ‘fact’. An example was the White House staff’s failure to see satire when it stared them in the face They included a Washington post satirical column on the daily list of noteworthy ‘news reports’. You might think the content would have provided a clue: “With the money we will save on these sad public servants, we will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.”
  4. Bad journalism. A common form involves running unsubstantiated rumours.The so-called Russia dossier on Donald Trump – compiled by a former British intelligence officer and based on hearsay and uncorroborated reports including some about sexual adventures in Moscow – was published by Buzzfeed with no attempt to verify the information it contained.
  5. News that we want to be false – even if it’s true. It is labelled ‘fake’ because it is inconvenient or ideologically unpalatable. President Trump’s countless tweets regarding the probe into possible Russian involvement in the presidential election provide obvious examples. His ‘fake news media’ mantra is, of course, designed to undermine those media organisations that hold his ‘alternative facts’ up to the light.

You may say this is all very interesting but isn’t all this half a world away from New Zealand? Why should we be concerned?  Why? Because internationally more than half of us are seriously concerned about its impact in an environment where it is all-too-easy to create, disseminate and access fabricated and manipulated material.

The Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report in June this year indicates that, internationally, well over half are concerned about manipulated and made-up ‘information’, even if our direct exposure to it may be much lower than our levels of concern.

Reuters concern fake nes

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018

Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy has just produced the final report of a commission on fake news and the teaching of critical literacy in schools. It included a survey of teachers that showed over 60 per cent were concerned about the impact of fake news on their pupils. The results of a quiz in which children were asked to identify fake news indicates part of the reason for their concern. Fewer than 40% correctly identified the fake news.

UK Parl report quiz results

Fake News and Critical Literacy Report 2018

We may be half a world away but the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (a wide ranging survey based on 33,000 participants in 28 countries including this country) showed 6 out of 10 New Zealanders still worry about fake news being used as a weapon. What this doesn’t tell us, of course, is whether New Zealanders are thinking internationally or domestically.

When we look at some of the more outrageous examples of fake news it may be comforting to think that we and our fellow New Zealanders are too smart to be taken in by fake news in any of its five forms. Perhaps we are…or perhaps we’re are not. Some things predispose us to being hoodwinked.

One is a respect for authority and expert knowledge.

Consider this case: A press release from a German research facility, the Institute of Diet and Health, states that research shows chocolate can assist in weight loss.  The findings were published in the academic journal, International Archives of Medicine. The announcement resulted in stories published internationally,  including the Daily Express in London.

The research and the announcements were fake. It was all part of an elaborate ruse by journalist and scientist John Bohannon – Johannes Bohannon of the press release — to prove how quickly and easily misinformation can spread — and to encourage the media to be more responsible when it comes to covering science and health stories. He had used methodology that was deliberately fundamentally flawed (the research sample involved about 10 people) and the research was reported in a pay-for-publication journal with no peer review.The Institute of Diet and Health existed only as a web page.

And it fooled New Zealand journalists, too. The story appeared on the Newshub (TV3) website. The key ingredient – an apparently credible source – also fooled them.

Sometimes fake news is the result of an unwise reliance on social media.

A story claiming that New Year’s revellers built a sandcastle in a Coromandel estuary to avoid a liquor ban ran on Stuff, the New Zealand Herald, the BBC and even in Time magazine. In fact, a young man named David Saunders had taken a picture of a group having fun and posted it to Tairua Chit Chat, a community Facebook page, together with a comment along the lines of “here we are, drinking in international waters to avoid the liquor ban”. The story and picture were taken from the Facebook page and the ‘facts’ weren’t checked with the revellers until days after publication, by which time they were happy to go along with the ‘international waters’ line that had its origin on social media. A minor story with no real harm done – and the opportunity for a little humour – but the practice is a potentially dangerous one.

liquor ban

I doubt very much that in New Zealand we will see the flagrant abuse of the facts that we saw in Trump’s road to the White House – such as claims that Ted Cruz’s father was implicated in the assassination of President Kennedy that appeared during the selection primaries in the National Enquirer, whose parent company is headed by longtime Trump friend David Pecker – but our last election wasn’t free of fake news.

fiscal hole


Some in opposition may say time will tell whether Steven Joyce’s $11.7 billion fiscal hole is real or not but a number of independent economists who examined Labour’s books could not find it and, crucially, Joyce did not provide the proof.  The fake election poster was an outright lie. Labour had no such policy.

Journalists can be excused, however, when the purveyor of fake news is an apparently credible agency of state. Arkady Babchenko, a high profile Russian war correspondent who had fled Russia last year, was reported dead and was shown lying in a pool of blood, with bullet holes in his back, on the floor of his Kiev apartment in a photograph distributed by Ukraine police. Police blamed Russia for Babchenko’s death, which at the time was denied by the Kremlin.But in a stunning twist, the 41-year-old journalist walked into a subsequent press conference, very much alive and saying he had participated in a “special operation” and co-operated with Ukrainian intelligence to employ a sting to fake his death in order to smoke out a prospective murderer, after it emerged that there was a hefty bounty on his head. Journalists around the world were delighted by his ‘resurrection’ but angered and dismayed by the deliberate use of falsehood by officials – the creation of fake news – with journalists as the dupes.

So, we know that it can happen and how it can happen but why should be so concerned about it?

Three hundred years ago the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, stated that “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it,”  In March this year, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved it.  They analysed 126,000 stories tweeted more than 4.5 million times. They found falsehood moved significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and especially false political news.

These tweets weren’t being pushed by nasty little automated bots. They were retweeted by people because false news was more novel than true news. And remember that social media tends to share between like-minded people – the so-called filter bubbles.

So we should be worried because fake news has the potential to spread faster and with greater effect that the truth that might follow it.

Swift’s observation didn’t end there. He went on to say that… “when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect.” That, too, has recently been proven.

For years, Donald Trump pushed the rumour that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States. A validated birth certificate proved he was born in Hawaii. Yes, it was genuine. In spite of the evidence, an Economist/YouGov poll in December 2016 showed that 42 percent of self-identified Republicans still believe he was born in Kenya.

And the outrageous piece of fake news about a Democrat paedophile ring, that had its origins in a village in North Macedonia, also had sticking power. A Public Policy Polling survey taken about a week before the Economist/YouGov poll found 45 percent of Republicans either believed that Clinton was connected to a child sex ring or that they weren’t sure whether that rumour was true.

It is not limited to Republicans. In the same polls, an average 14 percent of people who identified as Democrats  shared the Republicans’ scepticism that Obama was born in Hawaii, and an average 18 percent of Democrats echoed the Republican suspicions about Clinton’s involvement in organized paedophilia.

So we need to be worried because fake news has residual power – it sticks.

Part of the reason it sticks is the fact that we humans are susceptible to something called confirmation bias: If something seems to be what we think it should be, then we are likely to believe it to be so. Let me demonstrate.

Rat-Snake white snakeroot

If I asked you which of these objects was poisonous, your instinct would be to say ‘the snake’ rather than ‘the pretty white flowers’. That’s confirmation bias. In fact, the rat snake shown here is not venomous at all but the flower, the white snakeroot, when eaten by cows, turns milk into a deadly poison. It is believed to have been the cause of death of President Abraham Lincoln’s mother.

Another factor is our inability to recognise fake news when we see it. Put another way, it could be said we have poor critical literacy skills. Earlier this year the annual Edelman Trust Barometer was released. It was  based on 33,000 survey participants in 28 countries including New Zealand. It found that around 60% of us can’t tell fake from real and don’t know whether news comes from credible news organisations.

The same report indicates that, internationally, less than half trust the media and there is little doubt that manipulation and falsehood play a part in this poor record, although the report also shows real concern about poor journalism.  A Colmar Brunton Report in March showed that 50% of New Zealanders do not trust tv and print media.

Trust is low, in part, because the media can get it wrong. For instance, insufficient checks were done on a widely-distributed image of a little girl apparently about to be separated from her mother at the US border under President Trump’s get-tough policy. It made the cover of Time. In fact, they were not separated. The photographer had taken the picture to show the upset caused to a small girl by border guards body-searching her mother but it was then shared as the iconic image of the policy of separating children from their ‘illegal alien’ parents. Such misrepresentations, taken up and magnified by news organisations, have a huge impact on media credibility.

So, what can we do about fake news?

There are two strands to the fight-back. The first lies with our journalists and the organisations that employ them.

They must be vigilant and they must go to whatever lengths are necessary to verify their stories. The New York Times uses a system of triangulation – three independent sources – to verify significant stories and that’s a good starting point.

Journalists must stop regarding social media as a trustworthy source. I recently likened social media to graffiti. If journalists wouldn’t regard daubings on a brick wall as a legitimate source, why on Earth would they think social media is? The Broadcasting Standards Authority earlier this month sent out a guidance note on the use of social media content. The first question it says a journalist must ask is: “Is it true?” Then: “How can I verify its accuracy?”; “Have I contacted the source directly?”; “Is this someone with an axe to grind?” Then it asks a range of questions about the harm that publication could cause. In other words, think very carefully before you use social media content.

Journalists must also routinely employ the growing range of tools designed to detect fake news. For example, a photo purporting to be Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US special forces was distributed by social media and news organisations. It was subsequently processed by a computer programme called TinEye. By backward searching through images on the Internet it found the photograph was, in fact, a doctored picture of a dead Teleban fighter. Another tool is Storyful, which has a team that verifies material on social media and acts as a clearing house for authenticated items. Artificial intelligence will offer even more sophisticated tools.

In short, journalists have to give the public reason to trust them. The New York Times has done that. Its standards and ethics guidelines state that producing content of the highest quality and integrity is…the means by which it fulfils the public trust. Along with newspapers like the Washington Post, it is zealously pursuing verification of what it is told. It pays dividends, too. From fewer than half a million digital subscribers in 2012, the Timesnow has more that 2 ½ million.

However, we can’t leave it to journalists, even with their increasingly sophisticated techniques. The public has to play its part, if for no other reason than their propensity to innocently assist the proliferation of fake news by posting it on Facebook or Instagram. Or repeating a falsehood on Twitter. The public needs also to increase its level of media literacy and the media themselves can help with that. Transparency about how information was gathered should be a routine part of stories, especially investigative journalism. But we also need to start young.

The U.K. Commission on Fake News and Critical Literacy in Schools mentioned earlier found that only 2% of children and young people in the UK have the critical literacy skills they need to tell whether a news story is real or fake. Fake news is driving a culture of fear and uncertainty among young people. The commission’s report proposed a Children’s Charter on Fake News. This is what it believes is the right of every child:

  • We should have the critical literacy skills we need to navigate the digital world and question the information that we find online.
  • We should have the right to access accurate news from trustworthy media companies. We should not have to read or hear news stories that will scare us or cause us anxiety without having opportunities to discuss them and put them into context.
  • We should be given opportunities to practice our critical literacy skills by looking at news stories we find on TV, on the radio and online, including websites, apps and social media.
  • We should understand how the news is made to help us become critical thinkers and spot fake news stories.
  • We should be encouraged and supported to talk about the news that we read online at home and with our friends.

It would be a good starting point here, too. Children have a right to media literacy just as they have a right to learn how to read and write. They not only have a right to learn to be critical thinkers. They have a crucial need of it to identify fake news.

Society, however, has an even greater need. We need to find ways to stop fake news before it gains even a toehold. And we don’t have to look back 300 years to see why.

Once it’s out of the box, it can’t be put back. Hitler knew it. He said that the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down…”.  His propaganda chief Goebbels knew it. He said: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. And in the 21stcentury they are being proven right.

I want to end by asking you to watch two video clips.

The first was widely circulated on Indian social media and on regional news outlets. Here is the link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwXjme9X6lc. Please watch it before reading on.

They stated the video was surveillance camera footage of an incident on an Indian city street and evidence of organised child kidnapping rings operating in the country. It caused widespread fear and had horrifying results. At least nine people, including a woman innocently offering sweets to children, were attacked by mobs and killed as suspected kidnappers.

BBC fake news

It was, in fact, a fabrication. This is the video – a staged public service announcement on Pakistani television – from which it was taken:


It demonstrates the ease with which fake news can be created, distributed and believed. It is also tragic evidence of the danger that can flow from it.



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