From claims that a Washington pizza restaurant was fronting a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton to accusations Donald Trump said Republicans were the ‘dumbest’ group of voters, fake news hit the headlines during a bitter US election campaign.
Now experts say the phenomenon is a major problem in Europe, ahead of polls in France and Germany next year that could prove vital for the EU’s future.
It comes after Italian fact-checking website Pagella Politica claimed half the stories shared on social media in the run-up to the country’s recent constitutional referendum – the result of which prompted the resignation of prime minister Matteo Renzi – were fake.
How much of a problem is fake news?
US election loser Hillary Clinton said the ‘epidemic of fake news and false propaganda that had flooded social media over the last year’ was a danger that could put people’s lives at risk.
Meanwhile analysis by Buzzfeed News concluded that the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement on Facebook than top stories from the major news outlets, such as the New York Times.
Others, however, have cast doubt over the amount of fake news out there and its impact.
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg says 99 percent of content on his platform is genuine and that if there is fake news it’s not limited to just one partisan view.
Jenni Sargent, managing director of First Draft News, which offers guidance on verifying online content, told Euronews one of the tricks of those creating fake news was to create content that confirmed the bias of the audience they were targeting. Therefore getting Trump supporters to share an anti-Clinton post is unlikely to change the way that many people vote.
But, while there is disagreement over the impact of fake news, there seems to be consensus that it’s a very difficult area to assess.
Pablo Suárez, professor of mathematics at University of Mexico, said: “It’s not exactly clear what exposure people got to fake news [during the US election] and this is an active area of research.
“It’s difficult to get hold of data from Facebook and that’s one of the main obstacles to giving a full answer.”
Where is fake news coming from?
Another problem linked to assessing the impact of ‘fake news’ is differentiating between what can fall under its banner.
There are articles designed to make money by targeting specific online audiences, while others will try to influence opinion.
In terms of money-making operations, British broadcaster Channel 4 News has claimed some of it comes from an unlikely town in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia called Veles, where around 200 are said to be involved in a cottage industry to produce fake stories, that can earn some of its contributors up to 200,000 euros.
Other so-called fake news comes from Kremlin-financed media outlets, according to a European Parliament report, aimed at spreading anti-Western conspiracy theories.
It cites examples such as claims the German authorities tried to cover up the alleged rape of Russian girl ‘Lisa’ by migrants in Berlin.
Russia president Vladimir Putin, responding to criticism from Brussels, said he hoped Western moves to ‘counter Russian propaganda’ would not lead to serious restrictions, before going on to praise journalists from Russia Today and Sputnik.
What impact could it have in Europe?
“Fake news will definitely be a major problem in the lead up to both French and German elections,” Sargent told Euronews. “We are very carefully monitoring the potential strategies that will be employed to disrupt, distract and confuse.
“In terms of impact, I would not go as far as to say it will impact the result but it could certainly fuel acts of aggression and the like.
“There are increasingly very real consequences, particularly for sections of society whose stories are already under-reported or misreported.”
Controversial issues have already allegedly been the victim of fake news in France, including claims hostages at the Bataclan massacre were tortured.
Meanwhile, the head of Germany’s domestic BfV intelligence agency told Reuters earlier in November that authorities were concerned that Russia may seek to interfere in Germany’s national elections through the use of misleading news stories.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has also warned that social bots – software programmes to sway opinion on influential social media sites by spreading fake news – might manipulate the voting.
She faces a growing challenge from the anti-immigrant, populist AfD party, which has said the EU should drop sanctions imposed on Russia and that Berlin should take a more balanced position towards Moscow.
How does fake news work?
Sargent says those wanting to spread fake news have low entry costs – it’s a case of registering a domain name and then using a free blogging tool such as Wordpress to get your articles online.
“There’s a skill to this which means if every single news story on your fake news website is fake then instantly readers are going to become suspicious,” she added. “So the skill here is to copy and paste very reputable news stories which have been reported elsewhere but in among those is your fake news story which just adds to the confusion.
“Then you need a savvy social media presence to place these articles out there in the social web among the right communities. This is all about confirmation bias particularly when we are talking about elections.”
She said if the operation was serious and had a business plan, then you could make up to 100,000 euros from people sharing and clicking on the article.
“The people who are generating serious money they have to be sophisticated,” she explained. “You do have to understand how this ecosystem works.
“If the headline is written to confirm the bias then an audience is likely to share it. It’s about being very smart with your social media. But there are people that have all the time in the world to sit and do this because it can generate some income.”
What can be done to tackle fake news?
Facebook’s Zuckerberg has said the platform will try to better detect what is fake news and what is not.
Experts say one of the problems is differentiating between false stories and satire.
Dr Daniel Angus, lecturer in computational social science at the University of Queensland, said: “We need to be better at actually understanding what sources are good sources of information and what sources are perpetrators of misinformation.
“It’s a difficult one because we have known satirical websites which some people have taken literally. It’s difficult where you draw the line between what is fake, what is satirical. I don’t think it’s as simple as fake and non-fake. There’s a grey area about this.”
Sargent says the expectation that Facebook and Twitter should instantly come up with a solution was ambitious.
“I think they are very aware there is more that they can do,” she added. “It doesn’t benefit them, the issue of trust is very important.
“People continuously say nobody trusts journalists, nobody trusts the media, but you trust your uncle bob that uses Facebook?
“Are we asking too much of the users to expect them to question what they see? And I think that’s something we need to discuss almost as a society – whose responsibility is it to flag that something is misinformation.”
Suárez said: “The direction in which we’re travelling, we should be cautious. This could very easily turn to censorship and the silencing of people that actually want to express their dissent or antagonistic opinions towards other organisations.”