In the latest example of “fake news” spreading like wildfire a tweet — from a bogus account, passing itself off as BBC News — last week announced the death of the long-serving British monarch.
The account, named BBC News (UK) and with a picture of the broadcaster’s logo, tweeted: “BREAKING: Buckingham Palace announces the death of Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 90. Circumstances are unknown. More to follow.”
It would not have taken much investigative work to discover that that account, now suspended, was a fraud. For example, it only had about 1,000 followers, and its handle — @BBCNewsUKI — had that all-telling additional character.
But the fake tweet sent people into a frenzy, prompting numerous retweets and an eventual statement from a Buckingham Palace spokesperson that “The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh continue to recover from their heavy colds.”
But that was not enough for some, with conspiracy theorists accusing the British press of trying to cover up the Queen’s rumored death, spreading their claims with the #mediablackout hashtag, which started to trend on Twitter.
Appetite for fake news
The case was just the latest example of the apparent appetite for fake news — and again raised fears about the damage such bogus stories could cause.
Last week also saw a fake news story cause tension between Pakistan and Israel following an invented story on the website AWDNews that was headlined: “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops into Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack.”
A Pakistani minister, apparently in response to the story, tweeted an apparent nuclear warning. “Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too,” he wrote.
Another example of fake news having serious consequences include the gun attack on a pizza restaurant in Washington, which had been falsely claimed as a center for child abduction linked to Hillary Clinton. And then, of course, there is the role of fake news stories in the US election, which some claim helped Donald Trump win the race.
Fake news, real harm?
Harris Breslow, an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah, said that fake news stories could have very real consequences.
“Fake news can do quite a bit of damage, depending upon the nature of the story, the outlet or channel and, of course, the subject matter,” he told Arab News.
“In the recent US elections one can say, at least at this point in time, that the majority of fake news stories did little to affect either candidate’s core constituency and in the case of the core constituency may have only served to reinforce existing beliefs.
“What fake news did to undecided and independent voters is, however, another question entirely and one that is crucial to understanding the role of fake news in the recent elections.”
“News can have rapid consequences upon small-scale decisions — who one votes for, whether one keeps or sells a stock, should one buy or sell one’s holdings in a currency… these small decisions can come together to form a critical mass that leads to major effects.”
“The question of whether or not to fight this plague will become increasingly important as the amount of fake news grows and the potential for real damage or effects grows.”
Breslow pointed to a recent move by Facebook to start labeling potential fake news stories.
Under such systems a user is alerted over questionable stories, with the intention of discouraging them from sharing them. But whether that will solve the problem — or just create more claims of a #mediablackout — remains to be seen.[arab News]