Combating fake news

Combating fake news
8 January 2017

ONE of the big negative trends of 2016 was the preponderance of fake news on the Internet, so much so that many political pundits claim that it had an impact on the US presidential election.

Fake news wouldn’t be much of a problem if people were more discerning about the news they read but recent surveys show that people generally aren’t so. A Stanford Graduate School of Education study released in November revealed a widespread inability among middle school, high school and college students to verify the information they read. The report shows a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet, the authors said.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media, they’re equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, lead author of the report. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

The assessments reflected key understandings the students should possess, such as being able to find out who wrote a story and whether that source is credible. “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation,” the authors wrote.

But it’s not just students who are easily duped. Working adults fare quite badly too when it comes to discerning fake news from real news.

A survey from YouGov and The Economist released in December found that 17 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters and 46 per cent of Donald Trump voters believed elements of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory to be true. (That conspiracy falsely claims a connection between Clinton, a New York pizza restaurant and a paedophile ring).

Sometimes fake news is created as a prank, such as the one last month where a man claimed he was kicked off a Delta Air Lines flight for speaking Arabic. That story quickly went viral on social media and was even picked up by some news organisations. Delta investigated and denied his claims. It was later discovered that the person involved was a YouTube prankster who’d pulled similar stunts in the past.

Other times fake news is the result of rushed or inaccurate reporting such as when the Washington Post ran a story with the explosive headline: “Russian hackers penetrated US electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, US officials say.”

The story claimed that a code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration had been detected within the system of a Vermont utility. “While the Russians didn’t actively use the code to disrupt operations of the utility, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a security matter, the penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability,” the story said.

This wasn’t exactly what happened, and the utility company found it necessary to issue a clarification: “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organisation’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.”

So the story went from Russian hackers gaining access into the US electrical grid to a single non-grid laptop being infected with malware. If this isn’t a case of fake news, it’s certainly a case of exaggerated or inaccurate news.


So, why is fake news so commonplace these days?

There’s a confluence of reasons involving newsroom competition, short attention spans and social media’s viral nature.

First, let’s look at the source of fake news. Pranksters obviously do it for the kick they get from getting their fake news spread around the world. But the frequency of inaccurate or fake news spread by mainstream media is a function of today’s hyper-competitive news environment where news outlets compete for ever-fickle clicks.

Media companies are supposed to do proper fact checking but doing so takes time and holding on to explosive news means getting scooped by other outlets. So there’s tremendous pressure to release the news as soon as possible. To make things worse, once a single mainstream publication runs with a story, other mainstream publishers will usually go with the story too, often putting their own spin on it without doing their own reporting or even fact-checking. After all, if the Washington Post runs a story, it must be true, right?

Second, let’s look at the disseminators of false news: Us.

Of course few of us knowingly spread false news but our Internet-induced short attention spans have led us to share hot news very quickly without verifying it — or in some cases, without even properly reading the stories — first.

A study published last year by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found that 59 per cent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. In other words, people are actually sharing news stories based on article headlines alone, without having read the articles themselves.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

How does this lead to fake news being spread? Well, if people bother to read past the headlines, they might actually notice if there’s something fishy about a story. But if they just browse the headlines, it’s really hard to make that kind of determination.

To test how widespread this phenomenon is, a satirical news site called the Science Post last June published a nonsensical article consisting of “lorem ipsum” text with the attention-grabbing headline: “Study: 70 per cent of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

Nearly 46,000 people actually shared that post! Talk about irony.

Third, the nature of social media networks is such that any piece of information can quickly be shared around the world in a matter of hours. Fake news can worm its way into millions of social media accounts before any rebuttal or correction is made. And even when a piece of news is exposed to be fake, there will be those who never receive such information or might simply choose to ignore it.

These days many people get their news from Facebook and Google and fittingly, both these tech giants have announced efforts to combat fake news. Both have announced that they won’t allow advertising to appear on sites peddling fake news. Google has said it’ll continue to tweak its algorithm to demote non-authoritative information in favour of high quality, credible sources. Facebook, meanwhile, says it’ll start flagging questionable stories with an alert that says: “Disputed by third party fact-checkers”.

We, the readers, can also do our part to help weed out fake news. You might not want to spend too much time fact-checking so here are three things you can do very quickly if you come across eye-catching news that might or might not be true.

Yes, admit it, at one point or another we’ve all been part of that 60 per cent of people described in that Columbia University study who passed on hot news just based on headlines. Instead, we should take the time to actually read a news story before passing it on.

2. CHECK WITH GOOGLE NEWS see if there are multiple sources for that story. If it’s real news, multiple mainstream media sources would surely report on it. All you have to do is type in the keywords into Google News and see if there are many results.

Yes, fact-checking takes too much time and effort. Fortunately, there are several sites that exist to bust fake news for you. These include, and Refer to them when you come across a story that you aren’t sure about.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at


Keep moving

Keep moving
1 January 2017

IF you’re too young to remember the name Kodak, you’d probably at least have heard of Nokia. Both were at one time the biggest names in their respective fields. Both failed to future-proof themselves.

Kodak was film juggernaut and it was its dominance that led it to disregard the threat that digital photography posed. What makes it all the more ironical was that digital photography was invented in Kodak, by one of its engineers Steve Sasson in 1975.

In 1981, when Sony came out with its first digital camera, Kodak was still sitting on the technology that it had invented. Kodak was sufficiently concerned about this situation that it conducted a study on the likely adoption curve of digital photography. The conclusion they got was that digital photography was indeed a disruptive technology that could replace film but that it’d take some time — roughly 10 years — for it to become mainstream.

Instead of using the next decade to get ahead of the competition in making this transition — something it was well-positioned to do — Kodak again chose to rest on its laurels. And it’s not that Kodak has a history of inaction. It had successfully transitioned from dry-plate to film and from black and white film to colour film, in the past. But when it came to the move to digital, it faltered. In January 2012, it filed for bankruptcy.

When I joined the telecommunications industry as a senior researcher in 2008, Nokia was the dominant hand-phone maker. Not only that, its brand was among the most recognised and valuable in the world. But it would falter badly for much of the same reasons Kodak did and over a much shorter period of time. By September 2013, when it sold its handset business to Microsoft, it controlled just three per cent of the global smartphone market.

Like Kodak, Nokia wasn’t a company that was averse to transition. It started life as a pulp mill and has been in the rubber, forestry, cable, electricity and electronics industries, before it became a hand-phone powerhouse. Then Apple and Google came along and ate its lunch.

Again, like Kodak, it actually pioneered the technology that would eventually be its undoing. Nokia emerged with the first smart-phone in 1996 and was the first to develop a touch-screen and mobile-Internet capabilities for the phone. The problem was that it was too focused on the hardware aspect of the business while Apple and Google recognised that software, in particular the apps, was what made smartphones exciting.

The lesson all businesses can take from Kodak and Nokia is to never stay stagnant, to move with the times and to be prepared to transition to a new business model. These are lessons that we, as individuals, can learn from too.


As a veteran journalist, I started my career at a time when all a reporter had to do was report. We went to events, came back, wrote the story. There was no Internet then and certainly no such thing as social media or mobile news alerts to worry about.

We didn’t have to shoot pictures or make audio or video clips for quick immediate upload to websites. There was no app to update. Life was simpler then. But things change.

It’s human nature to resist change. When my bureau chief first asked me to start taking my own photographs, I resisted and gave various excuses to avoid having to report as well as shoot a press event. I remember telling him I’m not good at photography and didn’t want to waste film. He handed me a digital camera and settled that matter right there and then.

In time, I grew to become a capable news photographer. When the Internet boom hit Malaysian shores around 2000, I left traditional media and began experimenting with new media. I began blogging in January 2003, at a time when the word “blog” would’ve been met with a befuddled look. In time I learnt how to record and edit audio for creating podcasts and even learnt basic videography and video editing so I could create mul–timedia clips.

In 2008, I joined a Norwegian telecommunications company as a senior researcher so that I could learn more about the mobile Internet.

I did all these things not because I aspired to be some kind of “renaissance man” but because I didn’t want to be a human version of Kodak. The times were changing and the industry I worked in was changing. Yes, at its core, journalism is about good reporting and writing but today, having only those core skills isn’t enough.

In fact, having extensive multimedia skills is also not enough. As magazines and newspapers around the world feel the squeeze, more and more of them are engaging freelancers. To be a successful freelance journalist, you need to develop entrepreneurial skills as you’ll have to market and sell your story ideas to content companies. This mindset of constantly acquiring new skill sets and learning to be entrepreneurial is something that’d apply to almost any industry you’re in. It’s the key to future-proofing your career.

When I was first starting out in journalism back in the mid-90s, I knew an old-school journalist who was still using the typewriter to produce his stories. He worked for a foreign newspaper and would fax over his typewritten reports. I remember asking him why he didn’t just learn to use the computer. He assured me that being good at reporting was all that was needed in this line. I’ve since lost touch with that guy but I’m pretty sure he’s not in journalism anymore.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experience in print, online and mobile media. Reach him at

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