Fake news creators ‚Äúaren‚Äôt loyal to any one ideology or geography,‚ÄĚ said Tessa Lyons, the product manager for Facebook‚Äôs News Feed tasked with reducing misinformation. ‚ÄúThey are seizing on whatever the conversation is‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ usually to make money.
This year, Facebook will double the number of humans involved in fighting constantly morphing ‚Äúintegrity‚ÄĚ problems on its network, to 20,000. Thanks in part to those efforts, independent fact-checkers and some new technologies, Facebook user interaction with known fake news sites has declined by 50 per cent since the 2016 US election, according to a study by Stanford and New York University.
But if you think you‚Äôre immune to this stuff, you‚Äôre wrong. Detecting what‚Äôs fake in images and video is only getting harder. Misinformation is part of an online economy that weaponises¬†social media to profit from our clicks and attention. And with the right tools to stop it still a long way off, we all need to get smarter about it.
The crazy plane video first appeared on September 13 on a Facebook page called Time News International. Its caption reads: ‚ÄúA Capital Airlines Beijing-Macao flight, carrying 166 people‚Äôs, made an emergency landing in Shenzhen on 28 August 2018, after aborting a landing attempt in Macao due to mechanical failure, the airline said.‚ÄĚ
No real commercial plane did a 360 roll so close to the ground, but an emergency landing really did happen that August day in Macau.
Four days later, in Los Angeles, film director Aristomenis Tsirbas started getting messages from his friends. A year earlier, the computer graphics whiz had created and posted to YouTube a video he‚Äôd made showing a plane doing a 360. Someone had taken his work and used it at the beginning of a fake news report.
‚ÄúI realised, oh, my God, I‚Äôm part of the problem,‚ÄĚ Tsirbas told me. The artist, who has worked on Titanic and Star Trek, has a hobby in creating realistic but implausible videos, often involving aliens. He posts them on YouTube, he said, in part to demonstrate CG and in part to make a little money from YouTube ads.
The photorealism of Tsirbas‚Äôs clip played a big role in making the fake story go viral. And that makes it typical: Misinformation featuring manipulated photos and videos is among the most likely to go viral, Facebook‚Äôs Lyons said. Sometimes, like in this case, it employs shots from real news reports to make it seem just credible enough. ‚ÄúThe really crazy things tend to get less distribution than the things that hit the sweet spot where they could be believable,‚ÄĚ Lyons said.
Even after decades of Photoshop and CG films, most of us are still not very good about challenging the authenticity of images, or telling the real from the fake. That includes me: In an online test made by software maker Autodesk called Fake or Foto, I correctly identified the authenticity of just 22 per cent of their images. (You can test yourself here.)
Another lesson: Fake news often changes the context of photos and videos in ways their creators might never imagine. Tsirbas sees his work as pranks or satire, but he hasn‚Äôt explicitly labelled¬†them that way. ‚ÄúThey are clearly fakes,‚ÄĚ he said. After we spoke, he wrote to say he‚Äôd now add a disclaimer to his CG videos: ‚ÄúThis is a narrative work.‚ÄĚ
Satire, in particular, can lose important context unless it‚Äôs baked into an image itself. Another doctored fake news image, first posted to Twitter in 2017, appears to show President Trump touring a flooded area of Houston, handing a red hat to a victim. Artist Jessica Savage Broer, a Trump critic, told me she Photoshopped it to make a point about how people need to ‚Äúuse critical thinking skills.‚ÄĚ But then earlier this year, supporters of the president started sharing it on Facebook ‚ÄĒ by the hundreds of thousands ‚ÄĒ as evidence of the president‚Äôs humanitarian work.
Why would someone turn Tsirbas‚Äôs airplane video into a fake news report?
There‚Äôs no clear answer, but there are clues. Time News International, the page that published it, did not respond to requests I sent via Facebook, an email address or a UK phone number listed on its page.
Facebook‚Äôs Lyons said pages posting misinformation most often have an economic motive. They post links to articles on sites with just-believable-enough names that are filled with advertisements or spyware, which might attempt to invade our online privacy.
Lyons‚Äôs team shared with me a half-dozen samples of fake news. But the links to money aren‚Äôt always immediately clear. The Time News International page doesn‚Äôt regularly link to outside articles, though it posts a lot of outrageous photos and videos about topics in the news. That has attracted it a following of 225,000 people on Facebook; a base it could direct to content it might capitalise¬†on in the future.
Facebook and other social media companies deserve some of the blame. It‚Äôs easy to grow an audience for outlandish stories when publishing doesn‚Äôt require vetting, and algorithms are tuned to share the stuff that garners the greatest outrage. I saw that crazy video because Facebook decided I should.
Fake news producers also use our friends to add to their credibility. When I saw the plane video, my suspicions weren‚Äôt on high alert because it came from my friend, who I trust as a smart guy. He told me he realised¬†later the video was a fake but thought comments on his post would alert his friends. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just funny thinking about the steps by which we get duped,‚ÄĚ he said.
Facebook‚Äôs response to the plane video shows how far it‚Äôs come in the fight with fake news; and how far we have to go.
On September 17, a few days after it was posted, the video was detected by Facebook‚Äôs machine-learning systems, programs that try to automatically detect fake news. The company won‚Äôt disclose exactly how those work, but it said the signals include what sorts of comments people leave on posts.
Once detected, Facebook passed the video to its network of independent fact-checkers. After Snopes labelled¬†it as ‚Äúfalse,‚ÄĚ Facebook made it show up less often in News Feeds.
Why does the fake plane video remain up at a time when Facebook is making headlines for taking down other posts? Facebook said deletion is for violations of its community standards, such as pornography. ‚ÄúMy job is to prevent misleading and false information from going viral,‚ÄĚ Lyons said. ‚ÄúEven if something is false, we don‚Äôt prevent people from sharing it. We give them context.‚ÄĚ
That comes in the form of a label. Now when the video appears in a News Feed or someone attempts to share it, up pops ‚ÄúAdditional Reporting On This,‚ÄĚ with a link to reports from fact-checking organisations. Facebook said it also notified people who had already shared it, though my friend doesn‚Äôt recall seeing a warning.
‚ÄúI wouldn‚Äôt consider this a success from our side,‚ÄĚ Lyons said. Typically, posts that Facebook demotes have an 80 per cent reduction in the total number of views, so it‚Äôs possible without Facebook‚Äôs action, the post could have been seen by hundreds of millions. (Later, Facebook‚Äôs automated systems also detected duplicates of the video being uploaded by other pages.)
It‚Äôs also an issue of new media literacy. Facebook and others have produced fliers such as ‚ÄúTips for spotting false news,‚ÄĚ but it‚Äôs hard to change a response that is both human and pretty fundamental to the social media experience. There have always been hoaxes, but perhaps we need time to internalise¬†just how easy they‚Äôve become to create.
Lyons is already tracking the next generation of CG images dubbed ‚Äúdeep fakes‚ÄĚ that don‚Äôt even require the expertise of a creator like Tsirbas. Instead, they use artificial intelligence to splice together bits from lots of existing videos to create, for example, a fake speech by a president.
Maybe we‚Äôll eventually learn to be less trusting of our friends, at least the online ones. The people we count on for important information in the real world aren‚Äôt always the people who fill our social media feeds.
Or if you want to avoid being that friend: Before you spread the latest outrage online, stop and consider the source.