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Joanna Witt
November 2016.
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How can social networks cope with the spread of fake news?
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I think we’re going to see more and more fake news websites appearing as the global political landscape continues to shift, and of course these stories will be increasingly shared on social platforms. 

There are two main things to consider. First of all, as users, we all need to be sceptical of what we read online. The fact a story is posted on a news site doesn’t mean it’s automatically true. Today, too many of us are ready to accept that anything we read online must be accurate. And the interesting thing is, this phenomenon is not new. The same was true when my grandparents got their first TV, they believed everything they saw. This is simply a different medium and we need to evaluate the information we read or watch before accepting it as the truth. 

"This is why fake news will never disappear, it’s like a kind of online folklore and it’s just the way the way the internet works."

We also have to think about why people are producing fake news. Most of it isn’t propaganda or an attempt at brainwashing. People produce this kind of content because they want to make money and it works because many of us like reading sensationalist stories, often even when we know they’re not true. As I said, this has been going on for the last 100 years. There have always been ‘end of the world’ style articles. Think back to black-and-white movies showing billboards claiming the end of the world is nigh. We love this kind of excitement about something unknown, even when we know it’s fake. This is why fake news will never disappear, it’s like a kind of online folklore and it’s just the way the way the internet works. 

So what can social networks do? Google and Facebook say they will close the accounts of advertisers who use fake news sites to earn revenue. Google could also be the first to create a list of fake news sites. Chrome is a dominant browser and could flag, for example, a yellow exclamation sign on a site that is known to carry fake news. Facebook also has the ability to build a list of fake websites, they could then flag up if someone is posting fake news on their timeline. However, we don’t want social networks to go too far or take drastic action, for example locking people out of their accounts for posting fake news. That will lead to a type of censorship and in a democratic society we should be able to post what we like, providing of course that it doesn’t harm other people. 

In those cases we already have legal instruments to handle the publication of inflammatory or abusive material. So the best way for social media networks to tackle the spread of fake news is to flag these sites clearly and perhaps limit their advertising potential. But, importantly we as users also need to remain cautious about what we read and view online.