May 18, 2020

(Fact)Check Yourself

(Fact)Check Yourself

“Fake news is everywhere and can have dangerous consequences, such as influencing elections to even loss of life. This is disturbing, because access to information and news is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization.” Sunil Wattal, Fox Department of Management Information Systems

How does fake news affect our lives, and what can we do to be more aware of what is and isn’t fake news? We chat with associate professor of Management Information Systems Sunil Wattal to take a closer look at these questions and others, including:

Why has fake news become more prevalent since the 2016 election? Why is the term itself problematic? And how do our biases affect the way we consume news?

A simple look on Facebook or Twitter shows that fake news is everywhere. How do so many of us seem to fall for videos full of half-truths and share social media posts without credible sources? According to Wattal, the answer is our biases and blind spots. Also, due to technological and algorithmic advances, the line between what is real and fake has blurred.

In this episode of Catalyst, Wattal sheds light on the spectrum of fake news, from satire to deliberate misinformation. He shares his thoughts on how fake news has affected our lives, how political systems are interrupted and how it could affect the upcoming elections. 

Listen today to better identify misinformation and falsifications, and learn how to help stop the spread of fake news before it starts.

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business about the pivotal moments that shape business and the global economy. We interview experts and dig deep into today’s most pressing questions, such as: What is the future of work? Will the robots really take our jobs? And how is my company using my data? We explore these questions so you can spark change in your work. Episodes are timely, provocative and designed to help you solve today’s biggest challenges. Subscribe today.

Podcast Transcript

Host: Welcome to Catalyst, the podcast of Temple University’s Fox School of Business. I’m your host, Tiffany Sumner and today we will explore the motives behind fake news and its effect on society. We’ll also discuss how you can avoid falling for fake news. I’m joined by subject matter expert Sunil Wattal, associate professor of management information systems and the managing director of PhD programs at the Fox School of Business. I chatted with Sunil about the different [1:00] kinds of fake news, the motivations behind it, and what we can do to stop the spread of misinformation. Here’s what he had to say. Sunil, can you give me a succinct definition for what fake news is?

Sunil: So fake news is news that we hear or read about that’s not entirely true. So that’s the broad definition of fake news, but I think even the term fake news is misleading, because news, the word news is associated with media. On the other hand, what we come across on the internet that we classify as fake news is both news as well as information that originates from non-media sources as well. I’d say fake information or false information would be a more appropriate label for the term.

Host: Why has fake news become so much more prevalent since the 2016 election?

Sunil: There’s a lot a lot of reasons for it, so one [2:00] is the nature of fake news itself. There’s been some recent research that shows fake news spreads faster, deeper and more broader than true news, so in a way that people are actually more likely to share fake news stories than real, real news, news stories. And the reason why it’s becoming so common is there’s three broad reasons I can attribute this to. So one is technological reasons, because the internet and social media is so widespread, so anyone can be a content producer. And then advanced tools like photoshops and digital image manipulation, so now even deep fakes and video manipulation, kind of make the task of creating fake news so much easier. That’s one aspect of technology. The other technological aspect is the algorithms which serve us customized content. They basically give us the news we are more likely to agree with, that we are more likely to click on. And these algorithms mostly do not distinguish [3:00] between real and fake news, so they just show us news as long as it matches our interest, and again, that causes the fake news to spread more, because there’s some inherent biases which are well established in human psychology, which play a major role here. There’s a confirmation bias, which means people are more likely to see stories that match their own viewpoints. So then these algorithms give us tailored content. They kind of reinforce this confirmation bias and shield us from opposing views. So again, confirmation bias, we hear what we want to hear, and that kind of makes the spread of fake news. Another bias is called the implicit bias, which means we tend to categorize people and trust only those categories we are more likely to agree with and distrust the rest.

Host: That’s very interesting, and I think that I have heard [4:00] and many people have said that the internet is like an echo chamber, right? You only go in there to have your particular point of view, your particular bias validated and confirmed as opposed to challenging it. So it seems like, what you were saying about psychology and how fake news spreads, it’s really that’s true, and because of the ability to share this information with other people who may be likeminded to the person who is sharing it, because they are connected on social media, it has the ability to spread. What are the types of fake news?

Sunil: On one extreme, there are satire or parody sites which are designed to be funny, and they are mostly for entertainment and people usually understand that. On the other extreme is totally fake information, like news like drinking Corona beer causes coronavirus, which is totally fake. Most of the fake news falls somewhere in between. So these are the different types of fake news [5:00] that we commonly encounter online. So it could be misleading news, it could be paid content designed to look like editorials, it could be sloppy reporting that slips in an agenda, it could be news that is intentionally deceptive, it could be content that is biased, it could be a sock puppet where somebody creates multiple personalities of opposing views, or it could be at the most technological extreme, it could be a deep fake where fake videos are generated which make people say things that they’ve never said.

Host: With your background as a management information systems researcher, how fake can fake news get?

Sunil: The fake news can actually get pretty fake. You could see a TV scene with, I mean, this is like more and more common, you could see a TV screen with a CNN anchor and a headline, and that headline could be totally fake. I mean, there’s a lot possible now as I said with user photo editing, [6:00] Photoshopping tools, and now even the video editing, as I said with the deep fakes, you could even make people say something, which is the ultimate test of credibility. Is this person saying it, and now you can make them say it? I mean, technologically, it’s a scary scenario out there as to how much fake news can be created out there.

Host: Can anything be manipulated or completely made up even if it looks real?

Sunil: There are ways you can do that. For example, there are stories out there, you could see a picture of, say, a bomb blast happening somewhere, and then you will see a story, which is a totally different complex, and that can be used by somebody to create, you know, especially social discord, like those riots in different parts of the world, where one community is against another community, and you see a lot of videos where, you know, it sometimes is taken out of context [7:00] and then made to appear that something wrong is happening with your community and you have to retaliate. So there’s a lot of that happening out there, and again, just look at our Facebook feed or our WhatsApp feed, and you can see that there are stories which… if you use common sense tests, they don’t pass the tests, but still, even seemingly educated and well-meaning people share those stories.

Host: I’d like to talk about how fake news is impacting us at this moment and time, and I think it would be helpful if your research also covers this, to talk about this both from a political perspective, could it impact the upcoming election, the 2020 General Elections, could it impact it in the same way it did in the 2016 election?

Sunil: So fake news is everywhere, and while fake news stories alter from the truth on almost any subject, like business, [8:00] terrorism, war, science, technology, climate change, entertainment, but fake news actually, all it takes, it usually does the best. And sometimes the fake news is innocuous, so if somebody says Ronaldo, the footballer, or the Pope has COVID, it probably doesn’t make much difference, but sometimes the consequences can be deadly, like when somebody shows up with a gun in a pizza parlor in D.C. because they believe there’s a fake pedophile racket going on that is backed by the Clinton campaign. So fake news can have serious consequences. Even in this election, fake news, and the stories, the fake stories have actually increased than diminished, and there’s a genuine misinformation effect that people are trying to create elections, like those videos about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which were doctored to make her uninformed and clueless, as if she didn’t know what she was talking about, which was actually a combination of different things she said at [9:00] different times. Or a video of Nancy Pelosi, making her appear drunk, and that was shown millions of times, shared by Fox News and the President. Now you have fake news about Joe Biden and his connections to Ukraine, some of those things are real, more often than less stories being created about politics, and this can have real, real implications. In the 2016 elections, there was, a lot of people thought that they could vote on Twitter. So, they said you don’t need to leave your home, you can vote on Twitter, which is false. But there’s a group of people particularly targeted for their political affiliations so then that group of people do not go out and vote, they just Tweet their vote. So, since the elections, as we’ve seen, are usually down to the wire, a few hundreds of thousands of votes can make a difference. Fake news can have a lot of effect [00:10:00], one by playing on people’s psychology can affect morale and then ultimately the turnout at the polls which can be detrimental for a candidate. 

Host: So I think for the political fake news, it’s common knowledge at this point it’s used to sway elections or keep people from voting or to smear a candidate. For the other types of fake news though, what is the motivation behind it? 

Sunil: The incentives are sometimes economic but more often they are also social and political. So, for example, with COVID a lot the fake news that we see is designed to promote the idea that it’s all a hoax to destroy the economy, and help the democrats to not let Trump come back to power. So you have news like “CDC recommends that only the COVID patients should wear a mask that nobody else should.” Which is totally false, CDC has never said that again this kind of promotes the narrative that [00:11:00] this is not a serious thing and that it basically is a conspiracy to bring back down the president. So there is a political angle as well, of course, there is the social angle what we’re seeing nowadays people are becoming cheerleaders for a cause. I mean you see yourself as us vs. them mentality. Many people engage online, so there’s people you agree with, people you don’t agree with. So a lot of people share these stories just to one-up the other group, again the crazier the story the more likely people are sharing because it gives them the winning argument or so they think. So that’s the other motive, and of course, the economic motive is there because a lot of times you have these stories and the moment you click on the story it takes you on a webpage, and the moment you click on the story somebody gets paid. So there is a strong economic motive as well 

Host: So we talked about examples from 2016 [00:12:00] and 2018, the Pennsylvania primaries are coming up on June 2nd. Are there examples that we should be wary of? 

Sunil: I haven’t come across examples, specific to that or none of those which are highlighted in the main media or those lot of fact-checking sites and I think one of the reasons that more the stakes for an election the more you see activity on fake news, so you will see more and more of that at a national level because again, if you look at all the social, economic and all the factors are aligned to do it on a bigger scale, a national level. So we don’t see a lot of activity at local levels, we only see sporadic activity on the local levels, most of the activity is concentrated on a national level. 

Host: What can we do to stop fake news? I know Google, Facebook, and Twitter have made efforts, but are their efforts working? [00:13:00]

Sunil: That’s more a nuanced question, I mean one you can argue that these tech companies are the gatekeepers because it’s their site. They own these sites. But if you look at their guidelines, they are fairly relaxed. Basically saying, no nudity, no [inaudible], no hateful speech, as long as it’s there they let it slide. But now given that fake news has had such a major impact socially and politically, this time around companies are actually doing a lot of things to stop the fake news. For one, it starts with the algorithms, so better algorithms to detect fake news and efficiently flagging the fake news and taking a more active step on removing this fake content. Or having the algorithms again detect what is trustworthy and what is not, and then elevating the trusted source of news, the fake news sources could be entertaining or interesting but that [00:14:00] shouldn’t be the reason for promoting them. You should elevate the trusted sources of information, and [inaudible] on fake content because people who do it to make money if there are restrictions on who can sponsor or who gets paid by this questionable content should be pushed forward and we have seen more recent tangible steps companies have taken. For example, Twitter last year announced that it will not allow any political advertising on its website. So you know that has the potential to eliminate a lot of fake news. 

WhatsApp is really proactive. It created a policy that anything that is forwarded is labeled as forwarded so people know that it is not your friend who is saying it, it’s your friend who has heard it from somebody who said it. And it also places limits on how many times the content can be forwarded as if there is something that has been forwarded too often if you try to forward it one by one, not 20 groups at a time. So they have taken some restrictions [00:15:00] like that to curb the spread of fake news. 

Host: How can consumers be more informed? Is there a way to avoid perpetuating fake news? 

Well, at the end of the day, a lot of ordinance on stopping fake news is on the consumers because tech majors alone will not be enough. Because on the one hand, if you leave it to the tech companies, then there’ll be questions about censorship and curtailment of freedom of speech and first amendment. So you don’t want to leave everything to the tech companies, it’s for people to be aware of and know what they can do to prevent the spread of fake news. So I think the first is the basic recognition that sharing information online is not harmless. I mean you might think it’s a harmless story, but the moment you share something you become a clog in the machine. Which can be designed to propagate falsehoods and hatred and can have serious consequences for the society [00:16:00] that could lead to riots, hate, anger, and social discourse and could also influence companies and politics so basically we need to stop becoming a cheerleader for hate. 

There is also a need to educate consumers about some basic common sense checks that they can do once they look at stories on the internet, one social media, before sharing any story. So consumers should be educated about the source, where is this coming from? There was a story that some director of CDC had said that had definite proof that the Coronavirus is from the lab in China, it was this name and everything. This story was going around social media a lot, and when I did a search for this person’s name on Google nothing came up, he never said such a thing. So some basic common sense checks [00:17:00], what is the source of this story? Is it from a credible website or is it just forwarded? 

The headlines can be misleading because you know people get money for writing catchy headlines. So you know headlines can be misleading, so read the story before forwarding, people should read the story. And check other sources like Google the story, check reputable news outlets, see if that story holds. Because again if that story is important enough it will definitely be picked up in other media. So know the sender, who is saying or sending the message. Know their biases, if somebody has a background of sending messages that perpetuate a particular vision, then you should know that the messages that they are sending are going to be like that. 

And know your biases as well, why do we agree with stories that we like and disagree without considering [00:18:00] what is true and what is false. So know your biases and the people’s biases who are sending you these messages, and then sometimes for more important stories you could even do a Google Image search. If there is an image, just do an image search on Google and see where that image is coming from. Is it from the event that is mentioned in the news or is it some totally different event that somebody just created a story about? And lastly, you could wait for further news to check out before being the first one to forward the news, wait for the news to check out, and wait for the first reports to come out. Because sometimes the first is often inaccurate, so take a step, take a deep breath before you forward anything. 

Host: Thank you, Sanil for sharing your insight on fake news. We are not yet able to hold tech platforms responsible for the spread of misinformation, [00:19:00] but we can stop the spread of it ourselves. Double-check the facts, be mindful of our implicit biases and be conscious of who’s giving us information. This is especially important to remember as we approach the upcoming presidential election. My biggest takeaway from this conversation was to be curious and ask questions about what I’m reading and sharing online. Let’s be cautious of how we are shaping tomorrow’s world with false information because we will have to live with the consequences. 

Catalyst is a podcast from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Visit us on the web at We are produced by Eva Terra, Megan Alt, Anna Batt, and Stephen Orbanek with help from Karen Naylor. Special thanks to Joe Williams at Temple University’s Tech Center. 

I hope you join us next time until then, I’m Tiffany Sumner and this is [00:20:00] Catalyst.