Fake news and the public vote

In recent political processes with potential global impact, such as the 2016 US presidential elections in which Donald Trump was made President and the UK Referendum result that will ultimately lead to Britain’s exit, Brexit, from the European Union, it seems that “fake news” has played a critical role in manipulating public opinion and thus the final outcome. Writing in the International Journal of Web-Based Communities, Greek researchers have analysed the effect of the social media platform, Twitter, on an earlier instance of bad rumours, the referendum in Greece that would have led to Grexit, but ultimately did not.

Dimitrios Kydros of the Department of Accounting and Finance at T.E.I. of Central Macedonia, in Serres, Greece, has social  network  analysis  to investigate  the patterns  in  the data  surrounding rumours spread in serious  economic  situations. Kydros analysed the keyword “Grexit” and looked at how Twitter updates using this term changed with time in the run-up to a proposed referendum in 2015. Kydros attempted to distinguish between tweets from Greece and abroad and looked for clusters and communities sharing information about Grexit.

In attempting this analysis, Kydros was hoping to find out whether something other than the received economic wisdom that economics is driven by the scarcity of resources, supply and demand, and production costs, or whether other factors were driving the decisions of individuals in making choices that might affect them through national and international economic shifts, such as a country departing the European Union. He suggests that with the advent of 24-hour access to news and instantaneous communication either through email or across social media and social networks that financial or political news spreads and influences decision makers at all levels within organisations and at the individual and private level much more efficiently than in the past.

As such, those organization or people who are nodes and hubs in the network might be able to influence popular decisions more than traditional media. Moreover, if the opinions, perspective and political viewpoint of those hubs are aligned with a particular agenda, which may or may not be coincident with particular sectors of the media or politics, then their use of what might be termed “fake news” might influence popular decisions for better or for worse. Such effects are well-known through history, of course, and are usually referred to by the term propaganda. However, as we are all increasingly aware, instantaneous one-ton-one and one-to-many, and even many-to-one communications are very efficient with the ubiquity of the internet and perpetual connectivity for a huge proportion of the population.

Filtering news to preclude the spread of “fake news” might at first glance appear a desirable process, but who is to police such filtering, who is to decide what is and isn’t fake news? If the hubs are controlling the spread of information then it is one hub’s word against another’s as to what is genuine information that a reasonable person might trust and what is wholly propaganda that side-steps evidence and facts.

“Fortunately, even though the outcome of the Referendum was a straight road to a Grexit, the Greek political leaders were brave enough to put it aside and negotiate a new economic program for Greece,” Kydros says. “It seems that in such big questions, almost everybody (inland and abroad) has something to say. Twitter by its nature is an extremely fast and penetrating medium but due to its character limit it cannot carry integrated messages.” He adds that “It is now generally understood that some people or groups of people may use Twitter in order to lobby on special issues. Users, followers, and the general public should be aware of such situations and be conscious to double check not only the messages but also the corresponding Twitter updates and the general context.”

Kydros adds that we should teach children even as young as primary school age, “to realize that not everything that is said or written is true or accurate!”

Kydros, D. (2018) ‘Twitting bad rumours – the grexit case’, Int. J. Web Based Communities; DOI: 10.1504/IJWBC.2018.10010848.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.