OpEd : ‘Fake News’ stories and climate-change deniers are duping hundreds of millions on social media

Published by David Hayden on

13 January, 2017

Trump, Twitter, Climate-Change denial and the Advent of ‘Fake News’

[x_columnize]President-elect of the United States Donald Trump is infamous for his outrageous tweets @realDonaldTrump. He partakes in celebrity insults, climate-change denial, climate-change conspiracy theories, bragging about his election win over Hillary Clinton and the democratic party, and recently, utter disdain for traditional journalism. In his last press conference before his inauguration as US president he berated CNN journalist Jim Acosta, speaking over him and shouting “You are fake news”. A New York Times articles described Trump’s behaviour as the beginning of a war with and within the media. 

Trump is undeniably a member of the twitterati—the elite of the twittersphere—with 19.6 million followers and almost 35,000 tweets. However, as the White House prepares for Mr. Trump’s inauguration in just seven days (January 20, 2017) the tweeting behavior of the president-elect really ought to stop being taken as a joke. Soon-to-be President Trump has the power to impact environmental policy and climate change in a very serious way. He has already surrounded himself with an administration of cronies eager for energy independence opposed to climate action. Most likely, the Trump administration will  hamstring the EPA and the struggle for climate-action and the implementation of global environmental pacts will take a setback.

It has been widely reported that in 2012, Trump published a series of tweets claiming that Climate Change was a Chinese hoax designed to reduce the competitiveness of American industry. He also claimed that the US was spending a fortune while China was doing nothing. However, at the first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump told the audience that he had never denied global warming. Yet, the tweets from 2012 are still publicly available by google search and have been widely reported in traditional news-media.  Another tweet from Trump described global warming as ‘mythical’. However, what is truly mythical is Mr. Trump’s understanding of environmental science.[/x_columnize]

EPA, Breitbart News and the credibility crisis of climate-science under the Trump administration

[x_columnize]You may be asking yourself how seriously tweets ought to be taken. If Trump’s choice of Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA is any indication of his intention to turn views expressed on Twitter into policy then the answer is very clear. Pruitt, attorney general of Oklahoma, has close ties to the oil & gas industry. The New York Times has described him as a climate-change denier. Mr. Pruitt describes himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda”. Actions speak louder than words as the adage goes, if this is true then Donald Trump’s policy will largely disregard concerns over global warming. Trump favors a less regulated energy market and sees no need for immediate action on climate change. Furthermore, he has appointed Steven K. Bannon executive chairman of Breitbart news as his chief strategist and senior counselor for his presidency. Breitbart news was originally founded in 2007 as an apologetically pro-Israeli newspaper. It has since grown under the management of Steven K. Bannon to become an integral part of the US ‘alt-right’ and the European populist-right movements. Bannon declared the site “the platform for the alt-right” in 2016. The American ‘alt-right’ is convinced that climate-change is a hoax and it’s media outlets are famous for presenting the the scientific evidence as unclear and inconclusive. Breitbart News plays a large role in this strategy of obfuscation and misinformation.

Breitbart News published an article dated November 30, 2016 entitled “Global Temperatures Plunge. Icy Silence from Climate Alarmists“. The tone of the article is accusatory and attempts to obfuscate the trend towards global warming. The community of scientists and journalists that are reporting on climate-change are referred to as the “alarmist community“.  In December 2016, Breitbart news published an article positing that 2016 record-high global temperatures were not caused by climate change but were a direct consequence of the impact of El Nino. Breitbart News stories are counter to the scientific consensus on climate change. In a press conference on January 11, 2017 Donald Trump told CNN report Jim Acosta that his organization amounts to “fake news”. This begs the question, will environmental report be facing a crisis of legitimacy like never before under the Trump administration? A survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that Donald Trump’s language was being used by schoolchildren in the classroom with the effect of increasing bullying, this has been dubbed ‘the Trump effect’. Whether or not thoroughly researched and legitimate environmental reporting will fall victim to ‘the Trump effect’ remains to be seen.[/x_columnize]

Facebook an echo chamber for ideological views and ‘fake news’?

[x_blockquote cite=”Brendan Nyhan Professor of Political Science at Dartmouth College who researches political misinformation and fact-checking” type=”left”]I’m troubled that Facebook is doing so little to combat fake news. Even if they did not swing the election, the evidence is clear that bogus stories have incredible reach on the network. Facebook should be fighting misinformation, not amplifying it.[/x_blockquote]

[x_columnize]Facebook has come under fire after a report showed that fake viral news about both candidates got more shares and likes than news from authentic and credible news sources towards the end of the election. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined. [x_image type=”none” float=”none” src=”https://greennews.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/fake-news.png” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”] Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump. [x_image type=”none” float=”none” src=”https://greennews.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/top-fake-news-stories.png” info=”none” info_place=”top” info_trigger=”hover”] While the most successful and widely shares news story claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency, the second most widely shared news article was an authentic report from the Washington Post which quotes the Pope as saying that there has never been such a clear need for science to protect the planet. The pope was in fact imploring world leaders not to abandon global environmental pacts. According to BuzzSumo (a website which tracks popular content and sharing on social media) the fake news story about the Pope’s endorsement of Donald Trump was shared millions of times with 961,700 Facebook engagements. Of course, each engagement likely results in multiple viewings, possibly hundreds of additional views. Presumably, a large chunk of these viewers believe the article to be authentic and from a legitimate source. Again, according to BuzzSumo the most viral articles about Hillary Clinton accuse her of criminality or associations with ISIS and, most bizarre, in the Pizzagate scandal, it was falsely claimed the New York Police Department had raided Hillary Clinton’s property in relation to a child-sex ring which was purported to be revealed in coded references in John Podesta’s leaked emails. On December 4, 2016 a 28 year-old North Carolina man (Edgar Maddison Welch)  entered a Pizza parlor which was mentioned in this fake news conspiracy reports and fired four shots. Welch later informed police that he was self-investigating the conspiracy.[/x_columnize]

Facebook and Google move together with action against Fake News

[x_columnize]Mark Zuckerberg had previously stated that Facebook was a platform and not a publisher. For example when he accepted the Axel Springer media-group award in Berlin for outstanding entrepreneurial personalities , Axel Döpfner questioned him about Facebook’s intermediary status as a platform/publisher. Zuckerberg responded that “It’s easy to think that because you’re consuming content [in the newsfeed] that we’re a media company but we’re not”. This statement was from the award ceremony which took place on February 25, 2016. After Donald Trump was elected in November, the ‘fake news’ stories were subject to greater scrutiny and their potential role in influencing voters resulted in somewhat of a controversy. Facebook is by far the largest influencer in terms of social-media platforms with Twitter and Google+ being important also. In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise victory social-media platforms and particularly Facebook were criticized for becoming an echo-chamber whereby individuals liking and reacting to certain types of stories results in similar stories cropping up in their feed. This phenomenon is the result of Facebook’s algorithms operating as they should. The algorithms are designed to fill people’s feed with material they find to be engaging. However, this often means that liking or reacting to one ‘fake news’ story will results in several similar stories being presented to you. Essentially, without any particular intent to do, Facebook was delivering an avalanche of ‘fake news’ to those users who were susceptible to click on them and thus promote the material to their friends Furthermore, an MIT study of 200,000 Twitter users in China revealed that angry posts are three times more likely to be shared. There is a strong link between the emotional appeal of a post and sharing of a post which is essentially the reason why fake-news stories have been so wildly successful. The phenomenon was referred to as ‘yellow journalism’ in the past and unfortunately it can be difficult to stamp out since it works, fake-news sites make their money with clicks and influence people through emotional reactions. They’re hard to ignore and in the ‘economy of attention’ inherent to the world of digital media this means they’re very hard to get rid of.[/x_columnize]

Zuckerberg changes his stance on ‘fake news’ to speak about ‘responsibility’

[x_columnize]While Zuckerberg initially dismissed claims that Facebook had influenced the US election as a “pretty crazy idea” he soon changed his stance and has become increasingly concerned with the legitimacy of the content shared on the platform. In a Facebook live video dated December 21, 2016 Mark Zuckerberg took a decidedly different tone in relation to the ambivalent status of Facebook as a de facto publisher. In a discussion with Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook had spent a lot time reflecting on their responsibility. One wonders if he’s thinking here about influencing the presidential election, or if there is some sense of guilt or anger that the platform was harnessed so successfully to promote despicable lies.

He went on to state that though Facebook does not write the news that people consume on their platform but that they feel responsible for how it’s used. He also stated that “we know that we do a lot more than just distribute news”. This seems to be a big turn in Facebook’s attitude towards the legitimacy of material shared on its platform. The talk of responsibility and the desire expressed that Facebook be “a force for good” stands out as a change of tone. Google said it would ban purveyors of fake news on the web from using its online advertising service, AdSense on November 14, 2016 the Silicon Valley search giant said it would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service. Hours later on the same day, Facebook, the social network, updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites. “We have updated the policy to explicitly clarify that this applies to fake news,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “Our team will continue to closely vet all prospective publishers and monitor existing ones to ensure compliance.” It remains to be seen how effective Google’s new policy on fake news will be in practice. The policy will rely on a combination of automated and human reviews to help determine what is fake. Although satire sites like Waterford Whispers are not the target of the policy, it is not clear whether some of them, which often run fake news stories written for humorous effect, will be inadvertently affected by Google and Facebook’s changes.[/x_columnize]


BS Detector Plugin and legitimacy ratings

[x_columnize]A plug-in called the BS detector has been made available and is designed to highlight ‘fake news’ sites and publishers that have a history of publishing poorly researched articles with unsubstantiated claims. The BS Detector is available for Google Chrome, Firefox and Mozilla, Tampermonkey, Safari and Edge. According to the Chrome browser blurb:

BS Detector warns users about unreliable news sources. Easily identify fake and satirical news sites, as well as other questionable news sources.

Adds a warning label to the top of questionable sites as well as link warnings on Facebook and Twitter. Identifies: · Fake News: Sources that fabricate stories out of whole cloth with the intent of pranking the public.

· Satire: Sources that provide humorous commentary on current events in the form of fake news. · Extreme Bias: Sources that traffic in political propaganda and gross distortions of fact.

· Conspiracy Theory: Sources that are well-known promoters of kooky conspiracy theories.

· Rumor Mill: Sources that traffic in rumors, innuendo, and unverified claims. · State News: Sources in repressive states operating under government sanction.

· Junk Science: Sources that promote pseudoscience, metaphysics, naturalistic fallacies, and other scientifically dubious claims.

· Hate Group: Sources that actively promote racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.

· Clickbait: Sources that are aimed at generating online advertising revenue and rely on sensationalist headlines or eye-catching pictures. · Proceed With Caution: Sources that may be reliable but whose contents require further verification.[/x_columnize]

The future of Environmental reporting & the crisis of legitimacy

[x_columnize]Perhaps there is hope that Facebook and Google will crush the most egregious peddlers of fake news from linking Hillary Clinton to child-sex rings. This does not, however, stop the likes of Breitbart news and Mr. Trump himself from making sweeping categorical accusations against our most respected institutions of journalism accusing them of alarmist conspiracies and re-framing the consensus of climate scientists as up for debate every time the temperature drops by a single degree. It seems less likely that Facebook and Google will succeed in bring down this kind of ‘fake news’ the Breitbart kind that seeks to anger its readers and foster an attitude of suspicion and distrust towards any person or institution that would claim that climate action is needed or that climate change is occurring. Alarmist? It’s not only the environmental reporters that are alarmist in the current climate, the EPA itself is concerned. Under the administration of George Bush, some of the changes that occurred are that the State Department removed climate change from its list of global issues, and the EPA’s pages on global warming and climate change research stopped being updated. Now, should we anticipate worse happening under the Trump administration? The Internet Archive which is the largest digital library in existence is building a server in Canada for fear that the Trump administration will interfere with their operations in the United States. Brewster Kahle from the Internet Archive spoke about using the wayback machine to retrieve previous iterations of .gov websites. Mr. Kahle spoke of how the Internet Archive hopes to mirror data in Canadian servers to make sure the federal record of online information does not disappear from the public.  Fear of a Trump-administration data purge is also affecting U.S. government scientists who are frantically copying climate data they fear will disappear under the Trump-led purge of climate-science. One thing is clear, after Brexit, Trump, the ‘alt-right’ and the populist euro-conservatism are determined to undermine legitimate journalism and spin it as ideological and untrustworthy. There is no longer respect for the establishment.[/x_columnize]

[x_blockquote cite=”Michael Halpern – deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists” type=”left”]When you have people leading transition teams who have built careers out of questioning climate change science and questioning if there’s some kind of grand conspiracy to defraud the public, there’s no guarantee they will be terribly sympathetic to keep that information.[/x_blockquote]

[x_author title=”About the Author”]

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David Hayden

David is a contributor to the Green News. He has a Bachelor's Degree in International Business and French from UCD as well as a Master's Degrees in French literature and New Media from the University of California at San Diego and the Johns Hopkins University.