Photo CC. by andriuXphoto
Words David Dunkley-Gyimah

The excoriating effects of Cake, a yellow pill to rival ecstasy was never medically certified, but by the time acerbic humorist Brit Chris Morris had his way enough high profile British personalities and politicians had been duped into condemning its use.

In a 27-minute show, Brass Eye, itself a spoof news magazine programme, Morris illustrated just how easy it was to create fake news and a fake drug to rattle public and press. And if you’re in archive mood watch the BBC’s Panorama spaghetti grows on trees spoof. Peachy, for an April fool’s day prank. These were pre-Internet days, so no chance these hoaxes could develop legs and mythic truthfulness status.

Fake news, thus by no means started with the Net’s adolescence and social media’s swagger. No, you could go back to WWI footage restaged for newsreel cameras. But the Net’s certainly amplified, if not, empirically added to bogus reportage.

This recent so-called ‘Isis-flag’ waving refugees photo gone viral joins a lengthy list of veering ‘gotchas’. It’s since been identified from a 2012 post, but its intended veracity emerges from fears fuelled by UKIP’s Nigel Farage warning the EU that the terrorists are coming via the current refugee exodus.

In the brave unfolding world of news-a-plenty, churnalism (the churning of news from PR) and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg acknowledging that: ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa’, suggests that being privy to more news means more hoaxes in the offing.

What’s the fuss?
Last June the owner of a serious news site @Iraqsurverys, reports the BBC, got ‘bored’ and created a fake war in a bogus city, Shichwa.

The city actually didn’t exist, but when the news stirred warring factions into frenzied retweets and shares on Facebook, Ahmad al-Mahmoud nonchalantly owned up, even confessing he did nothing wrong.

Whether it’s a bunch of students creating a video of an Eagle attempting to snatch a baby or alleged sleight of hand from a Lebanese freelance photographer’s bomb photos, the consequences, undeniably, can be serious.

Adnan Hajj’s news photos showed darker plumes of smoke from an Israeli missile strike in Beirut. He says he photoshopped the image to ‘clean the picture’ denying any wrong doing. Reuters weren’t convinced and sacked him, binning his portfolio as they set about mending their brand’s reputation.

The number of tech tools to spot hoaxes increases all the while, with wares that perform reverse image functions. Tin eye , Google’s image search (press camera icon in search bar) and Pictriev are popular examples.

However, frankly and realistically, in a midday break with a latte in one hand, your phalanges frenziedly skirting around your phone in a bid to keep your social influence quotient high, who’s scrutinising images.

Masters of fake detection
Storyful, a social media agency is, and has built a business doing just that by engaging a number of triangulated steps that aim to verify that ‘amazing’ photo’s origin via its author, digital footprint and location. It employs a team of experts that use a range of tools, such as Wikimapia, directories to contact the photo or video’s owner and common sense — for instance when analysing Chat show Jimmy Kimmel’s fake fire twerking video.

In essence, and with some help from tech, it’s down to cognitive awareness, and partly reappraising the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman’s famous moniker, ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’

In this case, treat incredulous images and ones that look too good to be true as possibly lying. Granted, it may be a tad difficult, but some simple steps before a retweet and share may stop a lie in its track.

1. Check with a friend whether they know about the image or where it comes from. One of my twitter followers explained she doesn’t just retweet without checking the original source.

2. Become more critical before reposting stories. Your reputation for sending on bogus news also jeopardises trust with your followers.

3. Query whether the source looks legit, with a verifiable bio. Facebook lists a number of clues to look for fake accounts.

4. Leave social altogether, though yes that’s a bit drastic.

5. Come to the understanding at some point you will be fooled. There are professional hoaxers who live to fool news outlets. Learn from your mistakes and pass these on.

6. Attribute, by saying something like, ‘this was reported by… but I’m unable to verify whether it’s true’. It’s a common journalism meme. It doesn’t stop the flow of malevolent news, but at least shows you’re trying to be responsible

7. If in doubt, leave it out.

Last may saw the UK release of ‘The Man that saved the World’, a biopic cum docudrama about a Russian Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who ignored computer warnings that missiles were heading to Moscow. Less a hoax, rather a computer glitch, but your imagination conjures ‘what if’. What if, hoaxers, yes, er, well — perish the thought.

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If you liked this, do read by this author

  1. What’s the point of a PhD that covers journalism?

2. Why the news, once innovative, is now, er, so bad. How to make it interesting again.

3. How VICE Magazine has become the voice of a generation

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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