Fake news and social censorship: an overview

Tabby Farrar, Senior Outreach Specialist at digital marketing firm Further, explores ‘fake news’ and the rise of social censorship.

In 2011, ‘fake news’ was the Collins Dictionary word of the year: a catch-all for misleading information online, from stories made up for viral attention to deliberately deceitful claims made by politicians and political entities, ‘fake news’ is now considered a prominent issue for internet users.

Around 3.5 billion people currently use social media, out of an estimated 4.4 billion internet users around the world. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are used to share breaking news as it happens and to engage in debate about the news of the day. But the ease with which information can be shared on these sites – and used to ignite heated conversation – has led to misuse.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, social media users were left feeling unhappy about the ways in which their data had been used to tailor newsfeed content and swing the results of major political events. But it brought to light the deep and lasting impact that simple online activities can have, raising concerns about just how serious biased social newsfeeds and fake news sharing can be.

The growth of fake news

Not so long ago, most people got their news from ‘official’ sources – printed newspapers, and daily radio and television news shows. Nowadays, anyone can set up their own website and use it to promote news and opinions, and what social media has helped to do is highlight those sources that might otherwise be discredited or overlooked; and broadcast them around the world.

In many cases, facts are not checked prior to social sharing, while conspiracy theorists often discount any evidence in favour of suspicions and controversial claims. Sites like FactCheck, Snopes and Politifact seek to expose what can and can’t be trusted online, but rarely do debunkings spread as quickly as misinformation.

Online misinformation and engineered bias do not solely have political impacts. In the case of the antivax movement, they are having wide reaching impacts on human health, too. With misleading articles credited with causing huge new outbreaks of measles in the USA, political figures including the president himself have now had to speak out, encouraging people to ignore fake news online and get their children vaccinated.

With concern growing about the impact that social media stories can have on anything from election results to public health, it is little surprise that an increasing number of governments are looking to censorship and restrictions as a solution.

The current state of social censorship

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, the manipulation of social newsfeeds in order to influence election results came as a shock to web users in the Western world. However, it’s no strange territory to people living in places like Uganda, India or Turkey, where governments have been known to simply shut down the internet in order to ensure that information which might undermine their popularity can’t be spread.

Uganda’s social media tax, which the government claims was introduced to stop ‘idle talk’ and the spread of fake news, imposed additional charges for anyone who wanted to use services like Facebook and WhatsApp on their phones. While it could limit people’s desire to spread false information, the tax has been seen by most as a thinly veiled shot at preventing people from making legitimate criticisms of their government, by pricing them out of social media access.

At election time in 2011 and 2016, the Ugandan government went as far as totally shutting down the internet to prevent users from speaking against them; and this is not a one-off.

China is infamous for its Great Firewall, which allows the government total control of citizens’ online activities. Facebook, Google and YouTube are all blocked, with web users only able to exchange news through strictly monitored and censored sites. In Egypt, activists have been imprisoned for criticising the government on Facebook and Twitter under the guise of anti ‘fake news’ laws.

Even in Sri Lanka, where a social media block was brought in after terrorist bombings to try and prevent rumours from spreading before the facts were found, there are fears that this social censorship is not fit for purpose. Rather than easing tensions, the blackout created a greater sense of fear and panic, and many suggest that this vacuum of information is being readily exploited by those determined to manipulate the news.

New legislation to tackle fake news

Despite controversies and criticisms of the social censorship happening in other parts of the world, the UK and USA governments are lining up new regulations of their own. Though few doubt that more needs to be done to prevent false or fake news from spreading online, the question of how to go about ensuring this remains without a popular answer.

In the UK, a new internet regulator has been proposed; a governing body designed to ensure that ‘the UK is the safest place in the world to be online’. With substantial fines proposed for social media companies and tech firms who fail to protect their users from harmful content and misinformation, the proposal seeks to prevent social networks from being a sharing ground for extremist propaganda, illegal content and misleading posts.

While government representatives are keen to emphasise that this new legislation should not impact the ability of all users to access a free and open internet, there are fears that increased policing of social spaces online could be easily abused. With an age-restriction ban coming into effect this year that will require UK web users to upload their identification documents to the internet in order to access adult content, some users fear that other regulations could just be additional surveillance and monitoring in disguise.

Maintaining free speech and privacy

For those living or travelling in countries that restrict access to social media entirely, or where major web censorship is in place, there are sometimes ways to get around the blocks and ensure the government isn’t spying on you. Though actively speaking out can be highly risky in an authoritarian area like Iran or China, it’s still possible to access social media and website news reports online using tools like VPNs and the Tor browser.

Benefits of both of these services for the end user are that they provide a level of anonymity online, so that your digital footprint cannot be tracked around any websites you have accessed which may be on a government block list – like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. While the western world is not yet on the same level as China with regard to internet monitoring and surveillance, those who fear a tightening grip on online freedoms advocate early adoption of anonymity tools, which can sidestep regional restrictions.

Of course, there have been plenty of attempts to block individuals from using VPNs and private browsing options, because governments know that this undermines their grip on what communities are reading and learning online. But with so many users united in their desire to retain access to the instant news updates that social media can offer, for every block that is implemented, it seems it will never be long before a workaround is in place.

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