Fake news grows when gatekeepers go

September 18, 2018

Mainstream news outlets have gatekeepers.

They’re the people who decide what is real news and what is not.

They’re human and so not perfect.

They can let their bias colour decisions and, not knowing what they don’t know, let the wrong story through without at least some balance from the right one.

But they are still there to draft off deliberate and dangerous fake news.

Social media doesn’t have gatekeepers and without them fake news grows and spreads.

Lies, defamatory comments and accusations and false statements not only get published they go viral, infecting the world with untruths and fiction purporting to be facts.

In when anti-1080 activism grew  noisy and got uglyHayden Donnell  shows how it’s done:

. . .What caused the sudden escalation? Part of the answer can perhaps be traced back to October last year, when anti-1080 leaders held a think-tank near Nelson. There the lawyer Sue Grey gave a presentation on how to mainstream the movement. Grey has been a leading spokesperson in the medicinal cannabis movement, which has gained political traction and overwhelming public support in recent months, and she drew on her experience with that cause to outline a new anti-1080 strategy. Activists couldn’t rely on getting mainstream media coverage, she said. She proposed taking a different tack – co-opting stories about issues completely unrelated to 1080 to spread the anti-1080 message.

“You don’t have to wait for a story about 1080 to put a comment about 1080,” she said. “You know – here’s [a story on the fact] the prime minister’s in Vietnam – well put a comment ‘what’s the prime minister telling them about putting 1080 in our food?’. And you can actually sort of divert the whole story.

“There’s all sorts of things you can do to pick up on momentum and people are going ‘hang on, where’s all this 1080 stuff coming from’.” . . 

This sort of thread-jack happens on blogs too. An activist sees a post on x and uses it as an opportunity to write a comment that sides tracks with but what about y.

The tactics she outlined almost perfectly match a sea change in how anti-1080 activism is practised online, and particularly on Facebook.

I had my first encounter with the online anti-1080 movement last month after watching a live news video where Phil Twyford and Kris Faafoi glumly announced new rules governing wheel clamping. When I looked at the video’s comments section, almost no-one was interested in clamping. Nearly every comment was the same message, repeated over and over: Ban 1080.

I found out the comments had their roots in a single Facebook page: Operation Ban 1080. The 60,000-member group  was encouraging members to take advantage of Facebook’s easily evaded moderation tools to get their message heard on unrelated videos.

It was like Grey said in her seminar: they weren’t waiting for stories about 1080 to post a comment on 1080. They were diverting news stories on unrelated topics. They were being more noisy, and creating more trouble. . .

The dark side to that is familiar to anyone who’s watched fringe groups flourish on social media in recent years. Where Operation Ban 1080 would previously have had to go through gatekeepers to get their message heard – opening themselves up to scrutiny and countering opinion – on Facebook they were allowed to run wild. Emotive posts accusing 1080 of wholesale environmental destruction were actually rewarded by Facebook’s algorithm due to their high engagement. False posts or doctored photos showing native birds or deer “poisoned by 1080” went semi-viral. Lies could be posted without counterargument, and any objections were confined to other parts of the site.

“You get this snowballing crescendo of hysteria and conspiracy and science denial and hyperbole where, in order to keep on getting the likes on Facebook, each statement has to be more fantastical, more hyperbolic than the last,” said Dave Hansford, the author of Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the Fight to Save New Zealand’s Wildlife. “This is the whole fake news phenomenon. They used to be happy with simply misrepresenting studies or cherry-picking research or just denigrating scientists … but more recently that clown car has just like careered off this on-ramp to crazy town. People are no longer concerned with keeping even one fingertip still on a fact anymore. Now they’re happy to just make shit up.” . .

That nails it and deserves repeating:

This is the whole fake news phenomenon. They used to be happy with simply misrepresenting studies or cherry-picking research or just denigrating scientists … but more recently that clown car has just like careered off this on-ramp to crazy town. People are no longer concerned with keeping even one fingertip still on a fact anymore. . . 

In crazy town, facts don’t matter, conspiracy theories grow and emotion trumps science.

Facebook and Twitter are particularly good seed-beds for growing fake news making it too, too easy for its proponents to spill their venom from their echo chambers to infect a wide network.

They go too far on-line which encourages followers to go too far in real life, as the anti-1080 protesters did last week.

But what happened next showed the downside of that increasing radicalisation. Fake 1080 pellets were thrown onto the steps of parliament, prompting a debate between environment minister David Parker and anti-1080 protesters. Then dead birds were laid outside parliament. Though protesters originally claimed the animals were killed by 1080, tests later showed they appeared to have died from blunt force trauma. A police complaint was laid. Public tolerance for the anti-1080 protests quickly waned.

To Hansford, that shows how the same forces behind the rise of the anti-1080 movement also contain the DNA for its demise. While the increasingly radical online activism has won supporters to the cause, it also increases the chance of someone taking the violent online rhetoric literally and doing something so harmful it ensures the anti-1080 movement is booted out of the limelight and back into the fringe conspiracy dustbin, he said. “It could end in tragedy and if it keeps going there’s a good chance it’s going to. And on that day, public support for the anti-1080 movement evaporates.”

They have already gone too far:

Department of Conservation staff are facing a torrent of online threats and abuse following a recent spike in anti-1080 protests. . .

Last year they went even further, loosening wheel nuts on DoC cars and making threats to staff safety.

But still the lies travel further and faster than the truth without the gatekeepers to stop the infection.

In the face of that we have to vaccinate ourselves against the fake news virus with sceptisism and science, and follow Edgar Allan Poe’s advice to believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.

 


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