Wikipedia vs. fake news – a fair fight?

Is Wikipedia a tool for the common internet user to spot fake news when they stumble upon them?

What is fake news?

Fake news are false reports that are crafted to look legitimate and spread deliberately to reach a certain goal. They are not the same as articles with lurid headlines that are only supposed to generate a wide reach for media outlets. It is however related to the practice of agenda cutting, because it can support the latter by taking the focus of what the public is really interested in.

Where does it come from?

Fake news is new wine in old wineskins. At least since WW I for parties to armed conflicts it is common practice to spread false reports about the enemy fraction. The goal always was to motivate the own population for war and deter the enemies’ public from continuing the war sustaining effort. This practice called “propaganda” has also been used outside of armed conflicts by states to discredit -be it states or individuals- and turn their legitimate political claims to ridicule or take away support for them. In this respect propaganda and fake news are very alike.

They are methods to weaken or neutralize a states’ enemy by spreading false or falsified information. On of the main differences between the two is that propaganda can often be traced back to its originator. Fake news on the other hand are often spread in a way that makes it hard to trace them back and find out what they were supposed to achieve in the first place. This leads us straight to the next question:

How do fake news work?

Most of the times fake news are disguised as serious and unbiased reports. They are linked to incidents or developments, that have been covered by a lot of media outlets and are therefore known to most of the population. In this faked news proven facts are mingled with fabricated falsehoods in such a fashion that the two can´t be told apart from another easily.

Since the press and media can spot these reports as fakes when they apply the diligence of the press, another way is needed to spread fake news across the population. Therefore, they are published via Facebook, Twitter and even messenger services such as WhatsApp. That is done via pages that look like the ones of big TV stations or news outlets to give them a credible look. These sites don´t need to be known to anyone to work, furthermore they cannot be linked to a person, corporation or government standing behind them.

Once the fake news has been distributed in such a fashion, the originator just has to wait for viewers, that think their countries media landscape is censored or for inconsiderate users to share the “report”. The more often this falsehood gets shared the more effective it is in achieving its purpose.

This is done by,

-          creating attention for a topic to drive attention away from another one.

-          defaming a person that is a nuisance to the originator of fake news or even making them subject to criminal investigation.

-          blur the line between falsehoods and facts, so that other representatives of the originator can claim that facts are “not to be proven”or “disputed” even though they are not.

Fake news only work so well, because they exploit a specialty of the human attentiveness. We tend to perceive those things better that are presented to us on a repeated basis and in a loud fashion. You can see the hazard lights of cars faster than it headlights because they are orange and flash on and off constantly. The same principle applies to fake news. When we are – in addition to our traditional media – flooded with expertly falsified news we are in danger to take them as serious as actual news. This is just because, the bright beam of the traditional press and media isn´t as flashy as the hazard lights of fake news.

Examples can be found very frequently. Not long ago for example soldiers of the german armed forces detachment in Lithuania were accused of several vicious sex crimes. On a similar way the news was spread that Sweden is about to sell heavy artillery to Ukraine.

With these means it’s possible to set an agenda that is not based on facts and analysis but on intentional deception by someone who elsewise would have little to no influence on the public. This agenda can easily be picked up by populists such as Donald Trump in the United States or Marine Le Pen in France. They then cleverly mix concerns about pre-existing grievances with stories from fake news. By that they can achieve that a significant part of the population loses trust in the democratic process and free press and media.  This is a very dangerous process that however doesn´t need to be unanswered.

But how can you spot fake news?

Nine times out of ten you can spot fake news with careful reading of the suspicious report you´ve come across, a google search and the use of your own brains in the following steps:

1.      Do I know the source of this news?

Is the site that published the report in question known to you outside of Facebook, Twitter, etc.? If you stumble across an outlet that has thousands of followers on Facebook but you can´t find it or its publisher on Wikipedia, you discovered one fake news warning sign. If you can find it on Wikipedia read the article about the publisher and make up your mind about how trustworthy you deem him.

2.      Was this report on other channels, too?

When a report hasn´t been launched over other channels or news outlets, that´s very often because it can´t be proved. Responsible media only publish, what they can prove to be true beyond a certain level of doubt. Why would they risk losing clicks and attention by not reporting about an actual story, that was already in other outlets? So, if you come across a report that already has a very upsetting headline, that you can´t find in any other publication -be it on- or offline- you have most likely stumbled across fake news. Therefore, you shouldn´t trust the report unless you are very fond of the facts that are mentioned in it.

3.      You can always fact check for yourself, right?

If you still aren´t sure whether a report is faked or not after applying the first two steps, you can always read up in specialised literature, consult a Wikipedia article about the subject of the report or ask a known expert about it. Wikipedia has the advantage of being easily accessible for you. It has also proven to be quite hard to be manipulated because its articles are a result of a discussion with the goal of finding the neutral point of view. Wrong current opinions and false claims can´t make it into the Wikipedia easily. If you don´t trust it, you can still run the article through wiki-watch to check its credibility.

Beyond that Wikipedia can´t help you much. The studying of literature about the subject and talking to experts about it give you more concise and correct results. At least it gives you the chance of getting a quick overview about the facts and opinions on a certain topic.

If you invest a maximum of five to ten minutes of your time, you can spot almost all fake news as what they truly are:

Elaborate lies that someone is trying to feed you.

So if you want to spot fake news, Wikipedia in combination with wiki-watch is a helpful tool, but if you want to tell facts from fiction in a public debate or gain deeper knowledge about a subject, you shouldn´t rely on it alone.

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