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Fake news and elections: the danger coming from the social media platforms

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Former US President Barrack Obama ended his mandate by talking – amongst others – about information and opinion bubbles. And this is very relevant in the context in which Donald Trump’s campaign has been visibly pigmented with mass disinformation and fake news produced mostly by right wing platforms such as Breibart. A crucial role in disseminating this type of information was played by the social media, through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc.

A recent report published by Tow Center for Digital Journalism shows the big picture of journalism in the era of social media and the impact over the elections. And the facts analysed in the analysis are not applicable just for the campaign in the United States, but it is very actual for any other elections in relatively democratic and opened states where populism and extremism gain power.

The rise of the social media platforms, especially Facebook, Twitter and Google seriously twisted the way journalism is done, the editorial strategy of the media outlets and the mechanisms to get to the people. More and more, media outlets – if we speak about the traditional newspapers or the small platforms – become dependent on the third party solutions in order to promote their work, but also less capable to control the content.

One of the conclusions is that even through these platforms are not editors or publishers in their essence, they tend to skew the information and change the way it reaches the public. Less qualitative information tends to be distributed and more sensationalist news become promoted. On the other side, journalists are disadvantaged, as the real money goes to the platforms and less to the publishers. The table below shows the estimated US ad revenue growth for Google and Facebook.

The estimated U.S. ad revenue growth for Google, Facebook

Even though big companies may be advantaged and may invest in paid publicity, small ones are not in the same situation. Another effect was that fake news or disinformation website gained access to the wide space of the social media. Websites like Breibart grew and institutionalized falsehood and disinformation.

Several newspapers such as the Guardian or Wired have published information about the Macedonian-based fake news creation factory. During the presidential campaign the town of Veles became famous for registering more than 100-pro Trump web-

sites. And the articles have been strongly promoted through advertising mechanisms such as Google AdSense.

News such as an imminent indictment of Hillary Clinton, the Pope’s endorsement for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS played an essential role during the campaign. This information becomes more dangerous and damaging if we take into consideration the statistics below (done for US):

Russia has been accused of creating fake news and putting them on social media in order to control elections in other countries. In order to fight this phenomenon, the Czech authorities created a special unit to fight media interference with the 2017 elections. Also, for the presidential elections in April, Google and Facebook joined for the Crosscheck initiative that has the purpose to fight fake news in the on-line environment. After being accused of aiding the spread of false news and disinformation through its algorithm, Facebook started fact checking initiatives in France, US or Germany together with fact checking initiatives such as Politifact or Correctiv. Facebook also tried to limit the money earning mechanisms of fake news producing platforms and stated that Financial motivation is the source of much misinformation. Their authors earn money by posing for the media and redirecting users to their site via the promotion of false information. Moreover, Mark Zuckerberg stated in a post that Facebook will enhance the detection and reporting mechanism and work with journalists in order to consolidate their capacity of fact checking.

As the US elections have strongly been impregnated by disinformation and fake news, the efforts to control and debunk them remains an essential common fight of the media and the social platforms taking into consideration that just Facebook taken alone comprises more than 1.86 billion users. And with the decline and struggles of the traditional media, social media will define the agenda.

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