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Russian fake news is back. Do these 4 things to save the election from foreign interference


On social media, fake news spreads faster, further, deeper and wider than the truth. In 2018, my colleagues Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and I showed this in the largest longitudinal study to date on the spread of fake news on the Internet, which was published in Science magazine. We analyzed the distribution of all fact-checked, true, and false rumors that had spread on Twitter since it was first launched in 2006-2017. As I described in my book The Hype Machine, Russian fake news spread to 126 million people on Facebook during the 2016 elections and garnered 76 million likes, comments and other reactions. It reached 20 million people on Instagram and was even more effective there as it garnered 187 million likes, comments, and other reactions. Russia also reached millions of Twitter users with misinformation.

Was Russian interference enough to change the election result? We can’t rule it out. Research shows that the more we hear something, even if it’s wrong, the more likely we are to believe it, and the more it matches what we know. Although exposure to fake news was much lower than exposure to real news and focused on a select group of voters, it likely reached between 110 million and 130 million people. It didn’t have to affect everyone to tip when voting – almost a hundred thousand convincing voters in the most important swing states. This is exactly what Russia is targeting. And it didn’t have to change any voting decisions, it just had to affect voter turnout, which social media experiments have shown that it’s not difficult.

Social media platforms could significantly reduce the manipulation of elections, according to the research, by stepping up fact-checking and machine learning efforts to identify fake news, and by dismantling manipulative content so it doesn’t generate ad revenue. Restricting the re-sharing of incorrect information, demoting incorrect search results, and encouraging users to be more thoughtful would also help. Applying crowdsourced seals of approval to published content could be effective, but platforms need to be careful in doing so, as “false news” warnings can also signal that unlabeled content must be true and can reduce our overall confidence in real news.

With less than two months to election day and even less time to start mail-in voting, it is becoming apparent in this controversial election cycle that we cannot rely on the platforms or the lawmakers who do not seem motivated to target to fit laws like the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections Act, the SECURE Our Democracy Act, the Honest Ads Act, and the Voting System Cybersecurity Act. So what can we as normal citizens do to protect our democracy? A few simple steps can go a long way.

Think first before you share it. I often see social media content shared with preambles, “I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s interesting if it is.” Stop it. This is exactly what the manipulators hope for from you – they have designed the content in such a way that it is “interesting if it is true” even when it is not.

Second, google it. Usually the most egregious misinformation campaigns are easy to debunk with a simple Google search. Before believing or sharing what you read, it’s a few clicks to check out. Most of the time, the top search results will tell you whether the information is believable.

Third, pay attention to the original source. Often the most lewd fake news is associated with known lists of seemingly legitimate but obviously fake websites. Look for unusual URLs or website names that seem legitimate but aren’t. Although research shows that labeling information sources does not increase the distinction between fake and real news, it’s because most fake news is so obviously fake that naming the source doesn’t add much discriminatory information. But if you’re not sure, the source is likely telling you a lot about how trustworthy something is. Think if a strange source is endorsed by other credible mainstream news outlets.

Finally, check your emotional pulse. Our research shows that fake news is suggestive and tries to evoke strong emotions such as surprise, anger, and disgust. If the news you are reading shock or really mad you could be a sign that it is a fake. Before trusting it, check legitimate sources and do a smell test by looking for poor spelling, uppercase words, grammatical errors, or shocking content or images.

No matter who you support in the upcoming elections, when it comes to protecting our democracy, we are all in it together. And right now, at one of the most vulnerable moments of our fragile democracy, everyone is hands on deck.


Sinan Aral is the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. This essay was adapted from “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health – and How We Must Adapt” by Sinan Aral. Copyright 2020 by Sinan Aral. Published by Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


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