Last year, Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was killed as he walked to his home in Washington’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. The 27-year-old was shot several times before police arrived at the scene, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
While his murder remains unsolved, his family and local police believe his death was the tragic result of a botched robbery.
Conspiracy theorists on the internet, however, believe his murder was ordered by Hillary Clinton as payback for Rich’s leaking DNC emails to WikiLeaks, a theory debunked by many news outlets as untrue.
“As we were getting more and more news about Russia and the investigation, right-wing media became obsessed unexplainably with Seth Rich for about a month,” said Melissa Ryan, editor ofCtrl Alt Right Delete, a newsletter that tracks alt-right activities online and offers tools to fight back. Ryan, a digital campaign strategist and organizer, spoke at a Hacks/Hackers DC eventOct. 18 on fighting fake news, along with The Washington Post’s Philip Bump and iStrategyLabs’ Josh Strupp.
Rich’s story is just one recent examples of how fake news and misinformation spread online. “One of the biggest misconceptions people have about fake news still is that it’s just something that shows up on your news feed one day. We really have to start thinking of it as a weapon that hostile actors are using,” Ryan said.
An example of this is how the alt-right creates misinformation campaigns and unleashes them on social media, she said. These alternative narratives — like the Seth Rich conspiracy theory — are purposefully constructed and spread with the goal of getting them out very quickly. They start on 4chan and 8chan (online imageboard forums), spread to the_donald subreddit and other chat rooms and then to the rest of the internet. “We are not going to fact-check our way out of this problem,” Ryan said.
The best way to fight against fake news is to use tools to monitor these chat rooms and stop the misinformation before it spreads. “The more I learn about studies about why people believe fake news and conspiracy theories, by the time it reaches your uncle’s Facebook feed, it’s too late,” Ryan said.
Twitter, the 21st-century newswire, is also rife with misinformation.
When it comes to the president’s use of social media, “Donald Trump, more so than most politicians, has used that ability to speak to a big population to his own desired end, which is often misinformation and falsehood,” said Bump, a national correspondent for The Washington Post and former designer at Adobe. His Chrome and Firefox extension, “RealDonaldContext,” is “an attempt to wrap what Donald Trump is sending out into the world in some added context, to interject a little bit of objectivity into what it is that he’s trying to do,” he said.
“There’s no way to do it automatically,” Bump said, because it’s hard to develop a bot that would recognize the particular untrue thing President Trump is saying and reply to it. “It’s hard to keep up with it…. Donald Trump would tweet eight things a day, and six of them would require additional context.”
Asked if a tool like his should be baked into Twitter, Bump said he wasn’t sure. “People share all sorts of garbage [online],” he said. “There is no good solution. … I don’t know if it makes sense for Twitter to do it, but I think it makes sense for somehow there to be additional context.”
Can people be taught to spot fake news? That’s what “Fake News: the Game” is trying to accomplish. With an 8-bit look and feel, the app pulls in fake and real headlines grabbed from fact-checking sites such as Snopes, Politifact and from the Not the Onion subreddit. Players are presented with a series of headlines and must guess which ones are fake or real by swiping left or right. The more headlines players guess right in 60 seconds, the higher the score.
The headlines are entered manually into a database. Players can look at the sources at the end of the game, which can help them decide what to trust.
The game has been played about 7,000 times. iStrategyLab’s Strupp, who worked on the app as a project manager, found that a person’s score improves dramatically the more they play, adding that most users get more than half of the fake headlines wrong on their first play.
Even though technology can help educate news consumers, Strupp acknowledged there are limitations in using tech to solve this problem. “No matter what technological innovation we come up with, there’s going to be some sort of loophole.”
Main photo courtesy of George LeVines
Secondary photo screenshot of RealDonaldContext. Third photo screenshot of “Fake News: The Game.”