Fake News, Twitter, Elon Musk, and the Fight Against Online Disinformation

'Fake news' is a phrase that has been popularized in recent years by former President Donald Trump, oftentimes when attempting to shame his detractors in the media. He was particularly aggressive in using this terminology during the period that he, and several of his associates were navigating unrelenting charges of having colluded with Russian elements to achieve victory in the 2016 Presidential election.

After the controversial Mueller investigation bore no substantive fruit, Trump would continue to use the phrase, at times to describe what has been called by pundits like Steve Malzberg, “fake news by omission,” on occasions when the media was less than receptive to the idea of contrasting the obvious disdain they showed for the 45th president with a bit of honesty in maybe reporting some of his more important economic or diplomatic achievements.

But in the years since, the term “fake news” has taken on many different meanings, from being a pejorative used to insult someone on a social media thread, “you are fake news,” to being a description of so-called conspiracy theories, or perhaps of satire like the proud “Fake News” website The Babylon Bee, or even of what can be considered biased, yet not necessarily false, news reports.
 
But despite the differing definitions and opinions on what truly constitutes “fake news,” one thing is indisputable. Actual fake news is a scourge to society that has long-reaching implications. Intentionally misinforming the public at different times has led to anger, confusion, and in some extreme cases, civil unrest and violence.

In this era of social media dominance in our lives, fake news, hoaxes, and other cases of widely disseminated misinformation have at times led to awards for damages, as was the case in both the Nicholas Sandmann and Alex Jones cases in the past few years. 

Twitter, in its position as one of the world’s largest social media outlets, has come under fire over its handling, or mishandling of information, both accurate and fake, over the past several years. Specifically, over its labeling of certain stories, in particular the October 2020 NY Post story surrounding the controversial contents of the Hunter Biden laptop.

In the time since Twitter has operated under the ownership of Elon Musk the platform has attempted to achieve transparency on the issue of the NY Post Hunter Biden story, which is a good thing, obviously. Conversely, many have called out the way that taking a more hands off approach to administrating such a massive platform has created a resurgence in the distribution of misinformation, as the app can enable ill-intentioned individuals to share unverified stories.

It has also long been a breeding ground for so-called “bot” accounts that exist exclusively to spread false or misleading information in an effort to perhaps push a political agenda. And since there are few laws regulating what information can be posted online, we are still operating mostly in a social media environment conducive to the propagation of fraudulent stories.

But the traps associated with disinformation and fake news are not limited only to the Twitters, Facebooks, and Truth Socials of the world, as many websites enable the posting of patently false information in plain sight. These “fake news” stories are oftentimes used as clickbait to distribute advertisements by ad networks like Taboola and Outbrain. They oftentimes confuse web surfers with controversial or inaccurate headlines that diminish the overall online experience.

Theoretically, anyone can easily manufacture outrage or pass on misleading information with the assistance of irresponsible ad networks via many popular online news sites just by creating an “article” and turning it into a native ad. They would then pay an ad network like Outbrain or Taboola to target the users they want. Now that “article” shows up on most websites with the outward appearance of a legitimate news article.

This type of “fake news” has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, and one consumer advocacy group has taken to calling out these advertising tactics. AppEsteem, which was initially founded to “assist app vendors in developing and delivering safer apps to consumers,” has expanded its overall mission to include working towards creating a safer overall online experience.

As part of that mission, they have created a set of what they call “Ad Pollution Indicators” that identify, in part, the tactics used by ad networks that incorporate the spread of these kinds of advertisements packaged as phony news stories.

According to AppEsteem founder Dennis Batchelder, “Because they pollute their web pages with tricky and misleading native advertising, some online news sites have become some of the biggest spreaders of fake news. Web surfers then mistakenly click on these advertisements and fake news stories billions of times daily.”

The issue that has perhaps the biggest influence on whether the rash of fake news infecting the internet is ever addressed is Section 230 of 1996’s Communications Decency Act. For the most part, the language contained in the law shields social media apps, and in some scenarios, news sites, from legal scrutiny based on what is posted by users on their platforms. Therefore, as a result of the existence of Section 230, which has been dubbed “the twenty-six words that created the Internet,” social media platforms and news sites have little incentive to make any changes to the status quo.

The internet and social media apps are still very much “the wild west” in many ways regarding the spread of information, both accurate and fake. Although the future of Elon Musk’s new vision for Twitter largely hinges on the future of CDA 230, and Musk’s own tenure as CEO of the company is in doubt after a user poll, the group of individuals perhaps most important to the future of limiting the spread of “fake news” are the circuit court and district judges that are being nominated and confirmed by the Biden administration at a feverish pace. These judges will ultimately have the dominant say in the immediate future of CDA 230.

In many ways, it all boils back down to the old axiom, “elections have consequences.” In regard to finding the delicate balance between freedom of speech and truth in reporting, truer words may never have been spoken.

Julio Rivera is a business and political strategist, Editorial Director for Reactionary Times, and a political commentator and columnist. His writing, which is focused on cybersecurity and politics, has been published by many of the most heavily trafficked websites in the world.


 

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