With the internet and particularly social media awash with pictures, videos, news, and other content which may not be all that it seems, here is a guide to spotting fake news and content.
There are a number of sources and motivations for publishing content, misleading stories, misinformation, disinformation, ’fake news’, photos and videos that are not what they appear to be. For example:
- Scams. Cybercriminals produce, publish, and send a wide variety of fake content to trick people into parting with personal details, money, or both.
- Jokes and pranks. Manipulated videos, photos and stories featuring a well-known figure (often political) are frequently circulated as a joke or to ridicule that person.
- Politics. This is a huge area of concern for governments as disinformation published by actors for opposition parties or foreign powers can be (and have been) published on social media to influence voters and election outcomes. This was found to have been the case when the details of 87 million Facebook users (mostly in the US) were shared with Cambridge Analytica and used target people with political messages in relation to the 2016 US presidential election and the UK referendum. This is why Facebook has recently announced that it is banning deepfakes and “all types of manipulated media” ahead of the 59th US presidential election scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
- Conspiracy theories. There is no shortage of disinformation and misinformation being spread and shared by conspiracy theorists. This has been particularly apparent about the coronavirus. For example, in February, the director-general of the World Health Organization said that COVID-19 was not the only public health emergency the world was facing, but that the world was also suffering from an “infodemic” of fake medical news where “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus” and that it is “just as dangerous.”
- Inside information. Sometimes, stories and pictures appear from those who seem to have a story from an apparently legitimate source inside a company, warzone/disaster area, institution, or other newsworthy places where apparently shocking and new photos and details are produced to influence opinion. These sometimes need to be treated with caution.
- Networks of fake accounts. Networks of social media accounts can be set up using fake profile pictures and stolen/manipulated identity details to help disseminate, create a buzz about, and add credibility to misinformation and fake content.
One new twist to the creation of fake pictures and videos has come with the use of AI to make much more convincing photos and videos. With ‘deepfake’ videos, for example, people can be made to appear to say things that they have never said. For example, multinational IT security company ‘Trend Micro’ highlighted the threat of cybercriminals making and posting (or threatening to post) malicious ‘deep fake’ videos online in order to cause damage to reputations and/or to extract ransoms from their target victims. Also, for example, in March this year, a group of hackers were able to use AI software to mimic (create a deep fake) of an energy company CEO’s voice to successfully steal £201,000.
Social media analytics company Graphika, which offers a “Disinformation and Cyber Security” service, recently reported identifying images of faces for social media profiles that appear to have been faked using machine learning for the purpose of China-based anti-U.S. government campaigns. Graphika reported that the China-based network, dubbed “Spamouflage Dragon”, had used English-language content videos and AI-generated profile pictures that appear to have been made by using Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN). This is a class of machine-learning frameworks that allows computers to generate synthetic photographs of people.
Social media companies now use fact-checking companies to help them identify, label, and remove fake news. For example, Facebook has had a working relationship with ‘Full Fact’ since 2016 and works with fact-checkers in more than 20 countries. In 2019, Facebook announced that for the UK, ‘Full Fact’ would be reviewing stories, images, and videos, in an attempt to tackle misinformation that could “damage people’s health or safety or undermine democratic processes”.
Sharing is the crucial element of disseminating misinformation and fake pictures and videos on social media. Stories, photos, and videos need to generate strong feelings, tap into beliefs and prejudices, and be engaging or shocking to stand out and be shared by users.
If you would like to check content such as photos, videos, and news stories yourself to see how reliable they are, here are some of the main methods you could try.
Reverse Image Search on Google
If you would like to check the validity of a photo or where it may have first appeared, one method is to use Google’s reverse image search. This feature allows you to use a picture to find related images from the web. Here are instructions for using reverse image search: https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1325808?co=GENIE.Platform%3DDesktop&hl=en
Reverse searches for images and videos also work on other platforms such as Yandex (Russian). Here you can take screengrabs of footage and reverse search them to find out where they have been posted before
Geolocation of Photos or Videos
A closer study of a photo can often reveal text (signs, language, brands) and features such as well-known buildings to help decide where in the world (and when) a photo may actually have been taken.
There are many fact-checking websites to help you decide whether dubious-sounding information is true or not. Examples include Full Fact (the UK’s independent fact-checking organisation), Factcheck.org (U.S. based), AP Fact Check, Associated Press, Politifact, Snopes and many more.
Checking For Media Bias
Understanding that newspapers and news sites represent the views of their owners and therefore are biased towards them is the key to understanding how much of story may be true. Humans dislike cognitive dissonance and tend to read stories that are in broad agreement with their beliefs and attitudes. Having said that, media bias may be very apparent in some stories.
Using websites such as Allsides you can decide for yourself about different aspects of media bias.
If stories, photos, or videos appear unbelievable, it may be that they are, in fact, false and may require your own investigation before sharing. If stories create very strong feelings, they may have been written, filmed, photographed and/or manipulated in order to generate an emotional response which may increase the chance of media being shared quickly without thought.
When it comes to reports or videos of, for example, a certain political figure saying something, judging this by what you know them to have said in the past, their beliefs, and their known relationship with the truth (we live in a so-called “post-truth” era), may help to give a feeling about whether or not something is true.
Spelling and Grammar
Many errors in spelling and grammar and awkward use of language in videos and text can be signs that a piece of content is fake. For example, the videos created by the China-based “Spamouflage Dragon” group were recently identified as fake due to being clumsily made with language errors and automated voice-overs.
The addition of AI to the mix, the impending U.S. election, the fractious relationship between the super-powers, and the fallout from the handling of the coronavirus by certain countries, Brexit and the unfolding big stories of the day, misinformation and fake photos/videos are only going to become more prevalent. The challenge for social media companies is how to keep up with and how to tackle misinformation effectively at scale and the challenge for us to become more adept at spotting misinformation and using the online tools available along with own judgement to sort the truth from fiction.
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