Origins and Esclation of Fake News
“During critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook” — Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News Nov. 2016
In Colonial America printing came early to New England and later to Virginia. The first printing press arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, just eight years after the planting of the Puritan colony in 1630. The press was set up in Cambridge as an auxiliary enterprise of Harvard College, which had been founded in 1636. Both the college and the press were outgrowths of the Puritan commitment to learning and religious literacy, all works meant to support the public life of the community.
In the American Revolutionary War, the two opposing parties were the:
- Whigs, who believed in separating from England, and the
- Tories, who believed that Americans should not break away from England.
The Whigs were also referred to as the Revolutionaries and the Tories were also referred to as the Loyalists.
The first successful newspaper in America, the Boston News-Letter, appeared in 1704, and until 1719 it was the only newspaper in the colonies. Newspapers were just one part of the news system in eighteenth-century America, especially in New England. Other printed forms, such as almanacs, proclamations, and broadsides, also carried current-events reporting and commentary, just as they had before the rise of newspapers.
As tensions rose during the decade before the first shots on Lexington green, newspapers, broadsides, sermons, and other means of news and communication became increasingly important. While news still traveled by word of mouth, it was often the reprinting of news heard from post riders or seen in newspapers from other colonies that galvanized the colonies into supporting one another in their grievances with Parliament, and eventually the Crown.
With the establishment of Committees of Correspondence, local governments became active participants in the sharing of news and events. These reports were often turned from handwritten minutes and reports into printed news items in newspapers, broadsides, and pamphlets. From the Stamp Act to the occupation of the city of Boston, from the Boston Tea Party to the first firing at Lexington and Concord, the success of the revolutionary cause relied heavily on the dissemination of news about the latest injustices of the Crown and Parliament and the subsequent reactions of the colonists.
Once war broke out, the sharing of news became essential to establishing a separate nation. Colonists craved not only news of battles and troop movements, but also word of when the Continental Congress would formally declare the colonies’ independence. It was in no small part through paper and ink that the unification of the colonies and what John Adams called “the real American Revolution” — a change “in the minds and hearts of the people” — were made possible.
As soon as the violence ended on April 19, 1775, a second battle of Lexington and Concord took place. This one was waged not with bullets and bayonets but with ink and paper. It was a public relations battle that not only carried news of the battles but also tried to lay blame, both sides claiming that the other fired first and committed atrocities on the battlefield.
British General Thomas Gage attempted to combat the Whig press with his own version of the battle, printed as a broadside titled A Circumstantial Account. As was the custom in all colonial print culture, the language of this broadside was reprinted in newspapers, sometimes with additional editorial language rebuking it.
However, the larger number of Whig-controlled presses and their use of inflammatory language, images, and typography dominated the coverage of the event and won the second battle of Lexington and Concord — that of “public relations.” This political cartoon attributed to Benjamin Franklin, advocated that the American colonies join the Albany Plan for Union (May 9, 1754)
General Gage himself confirmed this when he said, “The press, that distinguished appendage of public liberty, and when fairly and impartially employed its best support, has been invariably prostituted to the most contrary purposes.” The press had certainly been used contrary to British purposes, but it was a great support to the aims of the colonists.
Fast forward to 2019 when Social Media has become the modern day version of Committees of Correspondence but with much less “content moderation” and editorial oversight. A recent BuzzFeed News analysis found that “in the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as:
- the New York Times,
- Washington Post,
- Huffington Post,
- NBC News, and others,”
As we approach the 2020 election Internet sites are likely to be overwhelmed with all of the “fake” information that will be posted/published on social media sites between now and then. The technology available to publish fake news has dramatically expanded in both scale and scope, making it not only easier to publish fake news but also increasingly more difficult to moderate it.
Various types of Internet sites permit user comments, such as: Internet forums, blogs, and news sites powered by scripts such as phpBB, a Wiki, or PHP-Nuke. Depending on the site’s content and intended audience, the webmaster decides what kinds of user comments are appropriate, then delegates the responsibility of sifting through comments to content moderators. Most often, webmasters attempt to eliminate trolling, spamming, or flaming, although this varies widely from site to site.
On Internet websites that invite users to post comments, a moderation system is the method the webmaster chooses to sort contributions that are irrelevant, obscene, illegal, or insulting with regards to useful or informative contributions. However, two developments make it highly unlikely that social media moderation systems will be able to keep up with the large volume of content that will be published between now and the 2020 election.
- One — Current Content Moderators are Overwhelmed — By the end of 2018, in response to criticism of the prevalence of violent and exploitative content on the social network, Facebook had more than 30,000 employees working on safety and security — about half of whom were content moderators who work around the clock, evaluating posts in more than 50 languages, at more than 20 sites around the world. Content moderators work by viewing, assessing and deleting disturbing content, and often suffer psychological damage such as Secondary trauma that arises, with symptoms similar to PTSD.
Last April, Facebook made public the community standards by which it attempts to govern its 2.3 billion monthly users. In the months afterward, Motherboard and Radiolab published detailed investigations into the challenges of moderating such a vast amount of speech.
Those challenges include the sheer volume of posts; the need to train a global army of low-paid workers to consistently apply a single set of rules; near-daily changes and clarifications to those rules; a lack of cultural or political context on the part of the moderators; missing context in posts that makes their meaning ambiguous; and frequent disagreements among moderators about whether the rules should apply in individual cases.
- Two — Now with tools like StyleGAN and FakeApp “faces” can be co-opted and used as content that is illicit, irrelevant, promotional and hateful. More importantly, however, there are little to no tools to moderate this technology and insure that “faces” are indeed those of the persons they represent themselves to be. Watch this video of Barack Obama’s face and voice being co-opted.
We’ve come a long way from when the first shots were fired at the battles of Lexington and Concord, at least technologically. But it looks like we haven’t come that far in terms of human nature wanting to escalate fighting especially when advesaries can be defeated with fake faces and voices instead of just words.
2 The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America — The Verge