A recent Hungarian experiment attempted to demonstrate how easy it is to spreading fake news and thus highlighted the importance of taking countermeasures on regional, national and international levels.
The changing media landscape poses significant challenges to our democracies. Currently, we live in a world where we are experiencing an unprecedented growth in the number of online media outlets, and as a result news consumption habits have fundamentally changed. On the one hand, the news cycle has become 24/7, and on the other, social media has blurred the line between truth, facts and fake or distorted news.
In addition, quality controls that functioned in the traditional media structure (e.g.: editorial boards) have become obsolete in the online world.
But what can we do with fake news and disinformation?
On the supply side there exist some – mostly weak – declarations made by Facebook that see the introduction of quality controls on the content appearing on their platforms; however, these proposals seem to be lacking real commitment and power. There is also some discussion occurring with regards to how states could potentially rein in and further control social media giants, but actual measures are very far from being implemented.
On the demand side, the playing field is much larger. Media literacy trainings, broader civic education programmes, awareness-raising campaigns targeted at both the young and the older generations do have the potential to tame the negative effects of social media.
No matter how many effective measures there are – hopefully – going to be on the side of social media providers, national and international actors must improve people’s ability to differentiate between fact and fiction because the conditions of the old, more reliable media landscape are outdated and not likely to return any time soon (or ever).
For a list of potential tools to stop fake news, Political Capital’s recent study can be a good starting point.
Raising awareness on fake news: the case from Hungary
In order to raise awareness on the issue of fake news in Hungary, we at the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based policy think tank conducted an experiment in early 2019. (A video about the experiment is available here.) We wanted to test how difficult it is to spread fake news in the online world; therefore, we fabricated a harmless piece of news and attempted to insert it into the international and Hungarian media.
According to this piece of fake news, the imaginary World Congress of Superhero Fans (WCSHF) headquartered in the US, issued a statement that Hungary is a country severely lacking the values superheroes represent, like solidarity, freedom or democratic values. Therefore, the world’s largest superhero statue should be built in Budapest, with the support of WCSHF.
The news appeared in dozens of English language media platforms including prestigious news outlets like the Business Insider. It was almost impossible to find anything suspicious about this piece of news: the organization existed, or well, it had a website, a phone number, and an up-to-date Facebook page.
Fake news has the ability to reach millions of people because it is easy to relate to. Hard facts do not stir up emotions, fake news, on the other hand, does.
That explains the choice of the superhero story, which is harmless, but because everyone loves superhero movies, it is very relatable. In addition to WCSHF’s website, a Facebook page was also created, where people could vote on which superhero’s statue should be built by the organisation. At first, Facebook blocked the idea because the fake profile with which the page was created activated itself too early. After regenerating the same page with an eight years old fake profile, we easily passed Facebook’s censorship. Tens of thousands of people read about the news in the international media and thousands of people voted which statue should be built in Hungary.
We contacted American news agencies and sent them press releases containing information about the organisation and the statue to be erected in Budapest. We sent the press release to multiple agencies, and only one of them got suspicious. After lengthy phone calls and correspondence, they were the only ones who rejected our request.
In case of the other agencies we managed to convince them that WCSHF in fact exists and the story about the statue is true. By the end of the experiment, the news reached almost 60 thousand Hungarian users, 1900 people took part in the voting. On the international level, our press release was published by more than 150 media outlets, which has a potential outreach of 7.5 million people.
However, the experiment was stopped at that point, as we did not want to cross a line and had achieved our goal, which was to demonstrate to internet users that it is easy to spread fake news and thus, important to consume news cautiously.
In addition, it is evermore so imperative that national and international countermeasures to tackle fake news are implemented swiftly and effectively.
Policy recommendations: tackling fake news and disinformation
Political Capital conducted a number of studies on how it is possible to tackle fake news and disinformation, and one of the most recent ones discusses such potential policy tools extensively:
1. All European, national and local legislators should receive cybersecurity training from European counter-intelligence services to avoid being hacked. In addition, they should develop closer collaboration with private companies and national/European intelligence services in the fields of information sharing, education and training.
2. Media literacy training to teach pupils how to fact-check, how to distinguish factual articles and those that are untruthful, how to differentiate between paid advertising and opinion pieces, and how to assess the factuality of information and adherence to journalistic standards. Implementation is urgent because it takes time to train citizens to be able to sift through an abundance of information published on the Internet, assist them in acquiring the skills to understand what is occurring in the world and teach them about the functioning of democratic societies.
3. Fact-checking initiatives should receive more funding both on the EU and national levels. Additional funding for fact-checking initiatives in local languages is also highly important, which include funding for marketing initiatives and projects.
4. European companies should cooperate to stop advertising on disinformation websites. The funding of sites that promote such views must be cut and more importantly, no dubious websites should be promoted on any platforms, including the Google Play Shop.
5. The best solution for social media companies is tailoring their algorithms to bury disinformation, or in other words show it to the least users possible. Moreover, deleting well-known extremist accounts spreading disinformation and conspiracy theories could contribute to slashing the supply of manipulative narratives, which has to be done in smaller geographical settings as well.
In Finland, ensuring a stronger position for media education is one of the strategic aims of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
The Ministry promotes media literacy through allocating resources, providing relevant information and developing legislation, including educational, cultural, youth and art policies. Media education enhances versatile literacy competencies, and thanks to media education, people in all age groups possess better skills for tackling everyday life, participating in society and developing as individuals.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.