Fake news, deep fake, post truth – these are terms that are becoming increasingly common in today’s media landscape. But what exactly do they mean and how did it all start? Canadian Buzzfeed journalist, Craig Silverman, spoke at De Balie last night about his role in the evolution of a term that now makes him ‘cringe’. He was joined by Editor-in-chief of NOS News, Marcel Gelauff, fact checker for Nu.nl, Shannon Bakker and war journalist, Bette Dam.
Silverman begins his story in the small Macedonian town of Veles in 2014. He visited the town initially to speak with two local journalists who had uncovered evidence that Veles’s largest factory was poisoning the air and water in the vicinity. As the town’s biggest employer, its eventual closure meant that many local residents found themselves out of work. A small but highly successful digital marketing industry grew up in its place. Young, tech savvy individuals began to cash in on the money that could be made from creating fake websites that ran fake news. In this case, they created over a hundred pro-Trump websites in the run-up to the 2016 US elections. Designed to engage Trump supporters and ultimately generate revenue via Facebook and Google AdSense, Silverman describes the phenomenon as ‘a digital goldrush’. His 2016 article ‘How teens in the Balkans are duping Trump supporters with fake news’ was one of the first instances in which the term, ‘fake news’ was used.
Regret the Error – how media mistakes pollute the press and imperil free speech
Error has always been a part of journalism, indeed of all things human. Silverman explains that, traditionally, the press has remedied this by acknowledging errors made, in the next edition. Such an approach ensured accuracy and generated that all important ingredient: trust. The Canadian journalist spent ten years running a website called, Regret the Error which focused on mistakes made by journalists. During this time he noticed the seismic shift that occurred with the advent of social media. ’This was a ten year journey that really began to change when social media became such a big force’, he explains. Errors could no longer be corrected by news producers nor could the veracity of facts be checked before they were made available for public consumption. ‘All sorts of erroneous stuff is already out there and getting lots of attention on social media’ – how then does one sort the real from the fake, the trusted from the untrusted?
Editor-in-chief of the Netherland’s largest news agency believes that fake news is ‘hurting journalism and ultimately, hurting democracy’. Asked about NOS’s own response to allegations of fake news production by right wing Dutch politician, Thierry Baudet, Gelauff is adamant that such allegations must be countered, even if this runs the risk of fuelling the publicity fire that frequently ensues. In a world where clicks are the new currency, the motives behind social media manipulation have expanded from being largely economic to include political propaganda. Silverman explains how Trump himself has made increasing use of the term to deflect criticism from the press. He also points out how authoritarian regimes around the world have ‘weaponised’ the term in order to criminalise free speech. However, individual users of social media are also responsible for what he terms ‘the business model around manipulation’.
‘Lies, damn lies and viral content’ – Silverman
The Buzzfeed journalist points, for example, at the global trade in Amazon 4 and 5 star reviews. Similarly, investigations in the US have found a number of users renting out their Facebook account for around 15$ a month to run advertisements. Sometimes these deals include a free laptop. There are more sinister applications of such exchanges – Silverman mentions the renting out of individual’s accounts in the Ukraine by the Russian government to manipulate the Ukrainian elections. Clearly the virtual world has created opportunities hitherto unknown for both good and ill. The incredible reach of social media means that almost everyone can now participate. The question is how best to manage this massive change in dynamic without sacrificing freedom or trust. Silverman and Gelauff agree that transparency and open discussion are essential. The Canadian journalist invites everyone to think about what ‘healthy scepticism looks like’. He predicts a rise in what he terms ‘borderline misinformation’ in the future, but still believes the internet can be a force for good in spite of its growing complexity. ‘Don’t be afraid of complexity!’ he urges. In a world of information disorder we don’t, it seems, have much choice. Souwie Buis 12th February 2020