Free Press Journal

When fake news goes viral, blame the media: study

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Washington: It’s true. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. In fact, according to a study by media researchers, many news organisations fail to do enough to separate fact from fiction, and often help unverified rumours and reports to go viral online.

“Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement,” said the study led by Craig Silverman, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. While news organisations have always dealt with unverified information, practices at some websites may accelerate the dissemination of fake news, said the report, “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content.”

“Many news sites apply little or no basic verification to the claims they pass on. Instead, they rely on linking-out to other media reports, which themselves often only cite other media reports as well,” the study concluded. Fake stories are often sexier or more interesting than the real ones, and as such get wider dissemination, Silverman said.


“The extent to which a fake news article can get traction was surprising to me,” Silverman said. Examples cited in the study were rumours spread on Facebook and Twitter that an Ebola patient had been identified in Britain, and another that the disease had been found in Richmond, Virginia. Both reports were untrue.

In another case, a story about a Kurdish woman dubbed “Rehana the ISIS slayer,” or the “Angel of Kohane” purported to have killed 100 Islamic fighters, turned out to have no basis in fact even though reports about her spread for weeks last October.

The researchers traced the story to a tweet from Indian journalist and activist Parwan Durani, who published the woman’s picture on Twitter and asked people to retweet it. Stories of her exploits — and reports of her death — were picked up widely by news outlets “but seemed entirely based on falsities,” Silverman’s report said.

“The simple story of the attractive Kurd who killed dozens of ISIS fighters is a powerful wish rumour. Add in a compelling image and it’s perfect for propagation on social networks. The result is that most of us will never know the woman’s true story — and the press bears a level of responsibility for that.”

Silverman said that even if much of the fake news is spread by “new media” or tabloid journals, the traditional or “quality” journalism outlets often sit by, allowing rumours to gain traction.