What's in your front room this Christmas? The real 'Chevvy Chase chopped by hand' Christmas Vacation tree? Or the, 'just like the real thing and no pine needles to pick up' plastic alternative? Nothing wrong with either. However, if you'd made the Chevvy choice, and then discovered it was a fake fir tree, you might be more fed up, than festive. Particularly if you'd paid a premium for the 'real thing'.
Far more troubling than the tree that's not what it seems is a news story, that, by all accounts, looks and sounds real, but isn't. 'Surely people know a tall tale from the truth?' You'd think and hope so. Fake news makers, though, say just the opposite. Paul Horner, dubbed the, 'impresario of the Facebook fake news empire', has just given away his trickster trade secrets in the Washington Post. He makes a living out of make believe media stories. 'People are definitely dumber now. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything any more--I mean, that's how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn't care'.
Horner's fictional stories included: the Amish lobby and how pre election their support could swing the vote. The source? Allegedly ABC News: via the very legitimate Associated Press. Not true. Then there was 'Obama bans the US national anthem at sports events'. That one came from CNN: allegedly. Again, untrue. But the falsehood prompted a furore all over social media.
My own work often includes investigating malicious campaigns against clients online. Untruths damage reputations, never mind the fact that they're often libellous. Imagine how you would feel knowing when someone Googled you, say before a work meeting or a date, that they'd read completely false information about you.
Of course, this make believe also makes money. Paul Horner doesn't peddle the fake for free. He nets around £8,000 a month from Google's Ad sense network. Google says it's now stopped the fakers from funding their habit, but who knows whether that'll knock it on the head. It's a vast fake news world out there. According to BBC News; 'There are hundreds of fake news websites; (which) deliberately imitate real life newspapers (and news sources)'.
Brooke Binkowski from Snopes, which checks facts, and fights online misinformation, believes that while individual fake news stories may not be dangerous, they can drip feed their misinformation over time. "There's a lot of confirmation bias," she says. "A lot of people want proof that their world view is the accurate and appropriate one."
Last month, The Pizzagate saga prompted a million messages on Twitter. The fake claim: 'a high level Democratic party paedophilia ring, was operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant'. One man travelled hundreds of miles with a gun, and opened fire, claiming he was 'self investigating' the claims. The potential for a full-blown tragedy is obvious.
I'm sure you, like me, don't believe everything you read online. But with the lines between fact and fiction becoming increasingly blurred, the need for checks and balances grows ever more pressing. As the Guardian's Andrew Smith suggests, 'if most adults get their news from Facebook we need laws to make social media accountable'. In fact, there are strong English laws addressing libellous claims but US operators can feel free to ignore them.
The net is not neutral, and the democracy we take for granted all too often, is precarious. It is worth fighting for, though. As is a hard won personal or professional reputation. Fake news flags up the fragility of these freedoms and I, for one, don't want the fraudsters taking them away.