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Fake News - From Russian Trolls to Corporate Stock Manipulation

One of the biggest stories of last year was the chaos wrought by so called “fake news” articles and publications. Today people often call it by another name, propaganda. Using widely distributed media that tells half-truths in order to influence public opinion has been going on since Darius I took the Persian throne in 515 BCE. In America its been around since the days of yellow journalism and perhaps before. 

The damage caused to the reputation of a group, individual, or idea is the goal of propaganda and fake news. By discrediting something, the party responsible for the distribution of lies gains power over the people who believe in these falsehoods. At the same time, the tarnished reputation serves to repulse supporters and diminish their ability to grow support.

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Fake News Versus Propaganda

While propaganda purports half-truths, fake news is different in that it’s usually patently false. Think tabloids with outrageous headlines -- “Oprah gains 600 pounds!” or “The Pope is charged with ten felonies. 

Drinking a Boys Blood for Passover?

Manipulating the public with falsehoods is a hallmark of certain institutions, and has been for a long while. In 1475, a priest, Bernardino da Feltre, circulated false stories through his sermons that the Jewish community of his city of residence had kidnapped a young boy. Da Feltre told his faithful church-goers that the Jewish perpetrators had taken the boy in order to kill him, drain his blood, and drink it in celebration of Passover.

Jews Tortured Due to Fake News

When the outrage sparked flames, da Feltre claimed that the body had been found in the basement of a Jewish family. This was the tipping point for the Prince-Bishop of the city, who had the entire Jewish population gathered and tortured.

The result was 15 people being found guilty and burned at the stake, and the church canonizing the young boy as Saint Simon along with an attribution to hundreds of miracles. This catastrophe became so famous that the term "blood libel" was created to refer to the act of Jews falsely killing Christians. 

This particular piece of fake news from 1475 worked so well that even today the Anti-Defamation League keeps a page on its website that serves to remind the public of the falsehoods of the blood libel story. Sadly, today, almost 600 years after the lies were made public, some people still hold belief in them.

Russia’s Involvement With Fake News

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When thinking about fake news, Russia may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, according to popular sources, as of 2017, Russia actively and aggressively attempts to influence media around the world. The Russian government has gone as far as to claim they are in a global war with the media.

The state supported news channel, Russia Today, is a publication that openly pushes propaganda. The goal of the propaganda is to increase the Kremlin's global influence. If it weren’t bad enough that a government operated a news channel  with the goal of increasing that governments power, consider this -- Russia Today has been accused several times of spreading disinformation.

According to the Washington Post, the Russian government operates “thousands of botnets, teams of paid human ‘trolls,’ and networks of websites and social-media accounts” that together constitute a “sophisticated propaganda” machine. The end result is a public distrust of media at large, which is exactly what the Kremlin wants.

The Impact of Falsehoods on Reputation

Fake news can wreak havoc on a good reputation to a much higher degree than those experienced by businesses with a few negative reviews. One is generally honest, the other patently false. 

In late 2016, a conservative publication, the ConservativeTreeHouse, published a fake news story about Pepsi refusing to service Trump supporters. In the online age, inflamatory news spreads fast, and sentiment can be measured. One company, the Alva Group, measured the impact that the article had on Pepsi’s reputation. The company reported that Pepsi’s sentiment score dropped 35 percent below average because of the publication. Social media has the power to demonize people and companies. That’s a huge impact on a company’s reputation from a single article on some little-known site.

Real News Not Extinct Yet

dodo.jpgReputation attacks like the example above happened during the 2016 election, as well. It has been speculated by economists that while the media landscape isn’t inundated with fake news stories, a striking level of fabricated news stories circulated during the election. That Russia helped Donald Trump win the election through the use of their propaganda war machine, as uncovered by several US intelligence agencies, further shows that the damage caused by fake news can be significant and even world changing. 

Most recently the Dutch have vowed to hand-count votes due to fears of hacking by Russia or other state actors. French and German elections are reported to be under similar suspicion of hacking vulnerability. None of these countries wants to relive recent events in America. 

Political Activism or Simple Greed?

Fake news is the spread of patently false information under the guise of real news. It's easy to believe people publish fake news due to political affiliation, but the truth might be different. It's been found that most people do it simply for profit. Google and other online advertisers have created an environment where fantastic stories are rewarded financially. The bigger the story, the more profit in the form of advertising revenue - never mind factual basis. This new environment of sensationalism and populism drives click-through-rates for advertisers. 

There exists a town in  Macedonia named Veles. Veles is the home of at least one hundred fake news websites. When the owners of the sites were asked why they did it the answer was usually "profit" Pro-Trump supporters were rabidly clicking on items, truth mattered less than sensationalism. They were simply riding the wave of trending emotion and capitalizing on it.

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Passionate People are Targets

Passionate people will click on most anything they agree with, especially if it's dramatic. If it supports their view, it'll often get click-love. People on the far right or left tend to be most susceptible to fabulists leveraging their online fury. Fury translates to clicks. Clicks to dollars, euros, and rubles. In the end, it's all about profit more than politics. 

The political landscape in the United States and elsewhere may have been altered not so much by political actors, but by a seemingly benevolent system gone awry.