Let’s Beat Fake News By Uncovering Its Dark Roots

Technology is responsible for generating and spreading fake news. But it can also play a role in putting the right kind of spotlight on it.

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Technology is responsible for generating and spreading fake news. But it can also play a role in putting the right kind of spotlight on it.


Let’s Beat Fake News By Uncovering Its Dark Roots

Technology is responsible for generating and spreading fake news. But it can also play a role in putting the right kind of spotlight on it.

Share this article

Fake news makes the world less informed, eroding trust and in some eyes, may even pose a genuine threat to democracy. Propagated out across social media channels and posing as credible journalism to attract maximum attention and manipulate its readers, we seem powerless to do anything about it.

In some ways, this is the quintessential unexpected side effect of the freedom the Internet seemed to offer. Before the Web, it was expensive to distribute information, building up trust took years, and there were much simpler understandings of what constituted news and media, making regulation or self-regulation easier.

The problem: social media has broken down many of the boundaries that prevented fake news from spreading, as it allows anyone to create and disseminate information, and it has made it cheap and highly effective to do so, too.

What’s more, the growth in digital news has decimated the power of the traditional, fact-checking mainstream press. So as real news recedes, fake news grows.

Technology advances aid the ways misinformation is spawned and travels quickly, too. After all, social media is, by definition, about actively sharing. According to the biggest study to date into fake news, one conducted by researchers at MIT and published in March in the journal of Science, the truth takes six times longer to be seen on Twitter than misinformation.

The researchers tell us lies are 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth — even when they controlled for factors like whether the account was verified or not, the number of followers, and how old the account was.

The perhaps surprising news is that while technology enables fakes news, it may yet also be the answer to curtailing it.

Part of the problem, after all, with Fake News is that there is so much of it, so trying to establish if the story is legitimate or not requires a lot of investigative work none of us as individuals have time for. Even with our most sceptical heads on, we are still unable to quickly distinguish truth from falsehood.

Black Lives Matter

Mass movements are often targeted by the fake news agenda

Step forward something called graph database technology, a really powerful way of both recognising and leveraging connections in mass amounts of data. It’s actually already being used by legitimate investigative journalists, as well.

Organisations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) use graph software to detect fraud and corruption on a massive scale in its recent famous Panama and Paradise Papers global probes.

Google uses a graph-based way of representing knowledge to enhance its search engine and map out the entire web. That’s making many wonder whether graph technology could also be the answer to detecting fake news?

It can be used to find hidden connections and relationships about who’s really putting the news in front of you. There is no secret that Russia cleverly utilised Twitter and Facebook in a bid to influence the 2016 US presidential election this way, for example. But with graph technology’s help, the US’s NBC News has uncovered the mechanism of just how.

Posing as an everyday American

The broadcaster’s investigation has revealed that the key to detecting fake news is connections between accounts, posts, flags and websites. By visualising those hidden/non-obvious connections as a graph, patterns that indicate fake content can be discerned, and so graph visualisation highlights the complex connections between social media data.

The journalists did this by analysing a list of 2,752 false Twitter accounts that were believed to have been operated by a Russian troll factory, the Internet Research Agency.

Despite the accounts and Tweets being taken down, NBC News was able to put together a subset of them, exploiting the power of graph technology from my company, Neo4j, to try to make sense of what the programme was all about.


Fake Twitter accounts spread messages far and wide

Connections between accounts, posts, flags and websites were soon laid bare, putting together a picture of these hidden connections and exposing how these accounts were impersonating everyday Americans, drawing hundreds of millions of followers to circulate propaganda.

So just how was this scam perpetrated? The group behind this was small, but very effective, working to leverage Twitter with popular hashtags and posting reply tweets to popular accounts to gain traction and followers.

In one account, for example, of 9,000 Tweets sent, only 21 were actually original and overall, 75% of the material were re-tweets, specifically designed to broadcast the messages to as wide an audience as possible. While some accounts posed as real-world citizens, others took on the guise of local media outlets and political parties.

When graph was applied to analyse the retweet network, it showed that they formed three distinct groups – one tweeting mainly about right-wing politics, a second group with more left leanings, but not all positive and a final group covered topics in the Black Lives Matter movement.

A possible weapon in the defence of Truth?

In some ways, if you take the long view, we have always been beset by fake news; powerful individuals have used information as a weapon for millennia, to boost political agendas and deceive the populace.

It may not be anything new, but we need to take a stand before it erodes faith in democracy. At Internet scale, however, it’s just too hard for normal people to spot the malicious or fraudulent relationships in a huge dataset without the right tools. We should look to graph technology, specifically designed to analyse connections in data, as a possible solution.

The author is co-founder and CEO of Neo4j, the world’s leading graph database.

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Let’s Beat Fake News By Uncovering Its Dark Roots

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