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Somewhere is the far east, there’s a team of Macedonian teenagers concocting ‘Fake News’. These rumours are so convincing that they get believed by millions. Just look at the US election.
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That sounds like an extraordinary achievement doesn’t it?
It’s hard enough to write news for people from your own communities. Not everyone can produce punchy, attention grabbing stories. (As a rule of thumb, anyone who uses the phrase ‘engaging content’ is incapable of writing anything interesting - and there’s millions of them out there).
So those Macedonian teenagers are not only writing news in a foreign language, for a foreign culture, but they must capture the mood of a very specific demographic that’s rarely featured on TV in a country thousands of miles away. However, according to popular legend, the Fake News pushers of China, Russia and other eastern countries recently managed to persuade the American public, en masse, to vote for Donald Trump.
More insight into all of this has come in a ‘ground breaking’ report from Trend Micro, which claimed to lift the lid on the shady eastern Fake News industry. It claims that the US election could be bought for less than two weeks of John Terry’s wages. If you think Trump is bad, wait until ex footballers start running for office.
A one year long campaign to influence election outcomes is available for just $400,000, says the 77-page report, which breaks down the key steps used to provide fake news as a service.
Trend claims to have identified a four phrase process involved in creating a fake narrative about Hillary Clinton turning Shergar into an Olive. It starts with the Reconnaissance of the target audience, after which comes - please don’t laugh - the ‘Weaponisation’ phase, in which the fake news story is prepared.
Weaponisation! A tad over dramatic, don’t you think? What words will you have left to describe a real crisis?
Once the story has been prepared, the fakers move on to the phase of Delivery and Exploitation via social media, followed by Sustainment with additional propaganda. At the end of the cycle, the public is often deliberately distracted with a new topic, beginning the cycle again.
Fake news is becoming increasingly popular, according to Bharat Mistry, Principal Security Strategist at Trend Micro. “This report takes a closer at how cybercrime ecosystem produces, markets and monetises fake news in underground markets,” says Mistry. I wonder, who is monetising who here?
Like fake news, the 77 page report will have undergone a four-phase period of research, writing, promotion and conclusion of business. The only difference is that, unlike the work of the Macedonian hack writers, the Trend report is unreadable. It comes in a clunky, PDF format, has loads of puzzling diagrams and doesn’t scan easily. I tried several times to read it, but it was so patronising and dull I just couldn’t stick with it. There are endless long descriptions of the blindingly obvious.
To save you having to wade through it, here’s a summary of the findings. The new fake news-style service providers have improved on the tried-and-tested black hat SEO, click fraud and bot traffic efforts. How? They don’t say. The report says anyone using the services of a news fakers will get complete anonymity while they seek to influence public opinion – even nation states. Hint hint.
There’s even a price list. A campaign to spark street protests costs $200,000 and creating a fake celebrity with 300,000 followers costs $2,600. Discrediting a journalist costs just $55,000 - well that explains a few things about my career. Other services include the creation of fake social media profiles and groups, developing fake content itself, driving likes and retweets for dissemination and even building legitimate-looking news sites.
For an extra charge, multiple news sites can be purchased which cross reference each other to add more authenticity to the fake news campaign, the report reveals.
All it sounds like harmless fun to me, like The Sunday Sport, only with politics. They should have got the Macedonians to write it though - they would have made it much snappier!
Still, as a precaution, I am embarking on a long slog to learn Neo4J, the graph database management system from Neo Technology, which promises to make data journalism a lot easier. It could be the ideal tool for combatting the rise of fake news.
All I need is a story of dubious origin to practice on. Can anyone think of anything?