The story sounded almost too good to be true. Valery Gergiev, a conductor known as a strong supporter of the Putin regime, interrupted a performance at London's Covent Garden to speak out in favor of the feminist performance artists Pussy Riot:
"The thing is, yesterday Moscow saw another day of hearings in the fabricated case of Pussy Riot.... I apologize for such a vulgar comparison, but the Russian state is acting like a dominant male in a group of monkeys, compelled to show off his sex organs to make the others fear him." The text of Gergiev’s speech went viral.
But in fact, Gergiev never made the speech
-- it came instead from a Russian spoof website called Fognews.com. Gergiev later denied he made the comments, but the damage was already done.
Ever since a wag scrawled an untruth about someone in a Roman latrine, there has been satire, but the Internet has greatly increased its potential reach and efficacy. With content platforms and social media democratizing publishing and distribution, the entrance barrier for fakery is lower than ever before. And because there is more of it swimming around than ever before and because the way we consume content has radically evolved, we are increasingly more susceptible to encountering and believing fakes.
The rise of fake news is inextricably linked with the popularity, spread, and click dynamics of social media. In an earlier Internet ecosystem of homepages and bookmarks, we would enter websites through the front door. You go to "The Onion" and you know that you're getting satire. But with much of today’s content consumption done through the side door of social media, or search engines sending us directly to article pages, more and more fake news is evading our satire radars. With the proliferation of news sites and blogs and the diversification and globalization of our consumption habits (most people in the United States weren’t reading Indian news sites 10 years ago), clicking on websites that are unfamiliar to us is a daily occurrence.
A U.S. senatorial candidate, Todd Akin, who had been in the news for remarks he made about rape, was the source of one such hoax, with a widely shared article
that claimed he believed ingesting breast milk could cure homosexuality. I received the link from a friend (a savvy consumer of U.S. political news) and for a moment believed it. It was on a site called "The Daily Currant," which I hadn't heard of.
Being in the dark about the source (I just imagined it was one of the many U.S. political blogs I hadn't heard of), my subconscious assessment of its credibility had more to do with the person who shared it than from the publication it originated from. Zig-zagging around the web, guided by recommendations from friends and followers, do we even notice the source any more, let alone the names of authors? Link-shortening services such as bit.ly add an additional layer of opacity, as the site is often not recognizable from its URL.
Our access to a wider array of global news sites and increased sharing across borders has also helped spread fake news. Satire, unfortunately, doesn't always translate. A popular Serbian spoof site, Njuz.net, made headlines with a story, “Shark-el-Sheikh,” about a drunk Serb who killed a shark when he dived into the Red Sea. The story was widely picked up by the Western press
. In 2009, a popular Chinese website, Huanqiu.com, ran a story about how U.S. President Barack Obama was sending Kim Jong Il an iPhone and a MacBook Air. The original source, however, was a satirical column from "The Guardian."
Perhaps too it is our own Filter Bubbles
-- the idea popularized by Eli Pariser that social media has trapped us in an echo chamber that leads to more homogenous and conservative consumption -- that have made us more gullible. While we might have more exposure to a greater number of news sources than ever before, perhaps the sharers -- the super-curators in our lives -- are as homogenous as they ever have been. No matter that the Facebook viral of U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney standing next to his children spelling out "Money" on their T-shirts is a fake
(it was a retouched photo and they weren't his kids) if the sentiment is one that dovetails with your political persuasions and belief system. Just hit like and then share.
The caveats we add when sharing -- "Not sure if it’s real or not, but pretty funny" or "unbelievable!" -- are perhaps an indication that half the time we don’t actually care whether it’s true or not. There are probably many people out there who believe that Akin thinks breast milk can cure homosexuality. Appetites for denials are paltry when the story is such a good one. Poynter's Craig Silverman calls it The Law Of Incorrect Tweets
: "Initial, inaccurate information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction."
For digital activists -- or indeed for anyone who can advance their agendas by disseminating fake news -- our collective gullibility is a boon. In July, environmental campaigners Greenpeace and the professional hoaxers, the Yes Men, set up an Arctic Ready website
, which spoofed the official Shell site and was focused on Shell's plans for drilling in the Arctic. But that wasn't all. Greenpeace then set up a Twitter account, ShellisPrepared, which was supposedly the company's social-media team reacting to a series of embarrassing ads generated by the fake site. Many Twitter users were hoaxed into thinking this was really Shell's bumbling social-media team, who, with no consideration for the Streisand effect, were telling people not to share the ads. Much Twitter snark ensued.
WikiLeaks got in on the act by disseminating a column purporting to be by former "New York Times" Executive Editor Bill Keller. The column, well-written and eminently plausible, did the rounds, taking in a number of journalists, including some at "The New York Times." The hoax was well planned
, with a page mirroring "The New York Times" site and a realistic-enough-looking domain. A fake Twitter account for Keller was also set up and even a fake PayPal blog responding to his column.
In October 2011, hacktivists in the Balkans created a fake Nobel Prize website
that awarded the prize for literature to Serbia’s leading nationalist writer, Dobrica Cosic. By the time the real winner, a Swedish poet, had been announced, the wires were on the story and Cosic had been congratulated. The hacktivists responsible said that they had carried out the hoax to "bring to the attention of the Serbian public the dangerous influence of the writer Dobrica Cosic."
There is also a seamier side to the fakery. As a hoax, it was a crude one, but then it didn't need to be particularly sophisticated. Created on March 11, the website's URL suggested it belonged to Azerbajan's main opposition party, Musavat. With a color scheme and design fairly similar to the original, the fake website was full of other content that would have been at home on an opposition site. The site, which had only been live for a few days, was created to host a video purporting to show an investigative journalist
, who works for RFE/RL, having sex. After electoral protests in Belarus in December 2010, pro-government forces set up mirrors of independent websites to funnel crowds to the wrong locations.
Censoring governments and sensitive corporations are likely to clamp down more in the future on fake news. In less-than-democratic regimes, there will be arrests, trumped-up charges, and bogus lawsuits. Established democracies, too, won’t be immune from taking harsher measures. Greenpeace's campaign against Shell, for example, generated much discussion about the line between satire and lying and misleading. Writing about the Shell Arctic hoax
, Anita Ramasastry, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, says:
The line between, on one hand, legitimate protest through parody, and, on the other, libelous misrepresentation or trademark infringement is muddy. And while this may be protected speech, some critics caution that campaigns may backfire—with similar tactics turned against nonprofits like Greenpeace, which partnered with the Yes Men.
Some critics argue that it would be a more honest and transparent choice for protesters to engage in true civil protest and accept the consequences. Other critics suggest that parody is acceptable, if it is more clearly and instantaneously recognizable as a spoof, rather than something that fools many viewers. So a website that called itself “Shill” instead of Shell, and used the a fake but similar logo, to parody Shell, might be seen as acceptable, since it is not an attempt to pass itself off as the real thing. One corporate spoof, for example, used the logo “Chevwrong” to protest Chevron’s activities in the Amazon.
Under U.S. law, whether such parodies are protected speech is a matter of legal debate -- and, as is often the case with technological innovation, the law lags behind. "To be protected by the fair use exception to copyright law, satire or parody should be obvious -- maybe not immediately obvious, but at least fairly quickly obvious," writes Ramasastry.
Globally, the amount of satire and fake news is likely to grow. Using off-the-shelf scripts, kids will be able to knock up sophisticated fake websites in their bedrooms with a few mouse clicks. There will be more meme generators and tools for digital manipulation will become more accessible for unskilled users. As the web expands, it will be more and more common to read news on websites we have never heard of.
But while the entrance barrier to spoofing will be lowered, our satire radars are likely to become more attuned. What was interesting about the WikiLeaks/Bill Keller hoax was how quickly people collaborated to uncover it and do the forensics of how it spread. Just as new technologies will make hoaxing easier, it may well be easier to recognize fakes using textual analysis tools and image verification software. No doubt, too, with an abundance of hoaxes, our standards for sharing and retweeting information will evolve so that the next time we get a story that sounds too good to be true, we might just think twice before sharing.