Ever since Donald Trump went on to an highly unexpected US Presidential elections win, fake news and its rampant propagation on social media has been seen as a major source for the said outcome. Not only Facebook but Google too has been put under the microscope for surfacing misleading and fake stories at the top its search results. But the point we’ve perhaps completely missed ? — who was behind the publication and spread of such news on the interwebs.
Well, we probably have a fix on that now. Citing multiple research reports, Washington Post has reason to believe that fake news pertaining to elections got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign. It states that the primary goal of this campaign was to create and spread misinformation which undermines Hillary Clinton and people’s faith in American democracy. They were also supporters of the now President-elect Donald Trump.
Independent researchers have found evidence that these Russian campaign groups exploited American technology platforms to attack U.S democracy at its most vulnerable moment. They believe that Russia uses a network of bots, troll farms, websites, social media accounts and official news services to create the much talked about ‘echo chamber’ on the internet, especially social media where such posts gain traction rapidly.
While there is no solid proof that the spread of the same affected the outcome but these researchers think it did sow the seeds of distrust among the voters.
The first report comes from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which has been tracking Russian propoganda since 2014. Commenting on the research conducted by him and a couple other researchers, Clint Watts, a fellow at the FPRI, says,
They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests. This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.
The debunking process and findings of Watts and his fellow colleagues Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger states the role of social networks at the core of this fake news problem. The group arrived at its findings using the following method:
It used Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes sometimes revealed common ownership.
In other cases, exact phrases or sentences were echoed by sites and social-media accounts in rapid succession, signaling membership in connected networks controlled by a single entity.
This report is further supported by one more exclusive report which Washington Post managed to get ita hands on. This one has been compiled by a nonpartisan research group PropOrNot and identifies 200 websites (probably black-listed ones) that push main Russian talking points to a combined audience of over 15 million Americans. It also states that these news sources were viewed 213 million times.
To add fuel to the fire, the researchers say that some of these stories originated via RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the tone of independent news organizations and publish misleading stories from time to time. You can pick such alarming stories about Clinton’s health, the killing of a FBI agent and many others.
PropOrNot researchers found that stories supported by Russian propaganda reached 90,000 Facebook accounts and was read more than 8 million times. This has, thus, led to Facebook and Google being dragged for leading to the unexpected outcome of the elections. Both of these tech behemoths have take stringent steps to stop the flow of such fake news on their platforms by cutting access to their ad revenue.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has already stepped up to defend the integrity of his platform twice – stating that only 1% news on the platform is fake and that it is crazy to think the flood of same affected the outcome. And if you look at pure facts, it really perhaps is true. A section of Facebook employees however, have strikingly different views compared with their CEO and have even formed a task force to oppose against the same.
Though there is in-principal consensus that social media is one of the primary proponents of this fake news hullabaloo, reports of Russian propoganda campaigns being the source of origin cannot be confirmed. The renowned publication Fortune has rightly contested the findings of both of these research groups, revealing that one of those has just been formed a couple months ago and it uses social media to share and retweet anti-Russian news to its followers. It has also shone light on other major points questioning the news and research reports cited by WP.