Disinformation

April Fools To Detect Fake News

Whether it is a ridiculous product by Google sounding too good to be true or the BBC supposedly reporting on how the Earth exploded, killing everyone on the planet — April Fools Day is around the corner.

We at Coda Story are on high alert for spotting pranks across the web.I t’s much harder to do when it’s not April 1.So, how do we know something is fake or real? And can we learn from hoaxes in fighting disinformation?

A new study by experts studying language processing says we can. With disinformation now part of our daily lives, Edward Dearden and Alistair Baron of Lancaster University created a dataset to compare April Fools hoaxes with genuine news articles.

“April Fools hoaxes are very useful because they provide us with a verifiable body of deceptive texts that give us an opportunity to find out about the linguistic techniques used when an author writes something fictitious disguised as a factual account,” said Dearden, lead-author of the research.

The results reveal clues to why we get tricked by fake news and hoaxes. Both usually use simplistic language and longer sentences than genuine news. They also tended to have more proper nouns, such as the names of prominent politicians ‘Trump’ or ‘Hillary,’ and are more often written in first person.

To test their results, the researchers developed an AI algorithm to spot whether stories are Aprils Fools hoaxes and fake news, or genuine news stories. They scored 75% accuracy for identifying April Fools hoaxes and 72% for identifying fake news stories, meaning that they may be on to a formula that can help us all.

Dig Deeper: Every day may feel like April Fools Day as disinformation and misinformation are now one of the biggest threats global disorder, from elections around the world, the outbreak of contagious disease, and even military conflicts. But there are are evidence-based ways to combat it.

Hollywood is now stepping up to wield one of the most effective disinformation weapons: TV.

Last week, an episode of the American political drama television series Madam Secretary, focused on anti-vaccination scares by dramatizing a fictional measles outbreak.

With outbreaks of preventable disease spreading across the world, social media platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest have decided to limit or block anti-vaxx posts and comments. But putting the issue into the homes of millions of Americans via popular entertainment has the potential of actually changing people’s minds about the issue, according to researchers.

Back in the 1980s, the widely popular medical drama Quincy, M.E., illustrated the plight of people with rare diseases and Big Pharma’s decisions not to produce what the companies considered non-profitable medications that might help them. The buzz from the show led to Congress passing the Orphan Drug Law — proving how influential a TV show could be in changing public opinion.

Small projects, not just Hollywood, can also help deter disinformation.

In Ukraine, a program helping school children understand the difference between truth and fiction has helped their ability to spot fake news. Kids who participated in the lessons were twice as likely to detect hate speech, 18 percent better at identifying fake news stories, 16 percent better at sorting out fact from opinion, and 14 percent more knowledgeable about the role of the news media industry.

Those efforts are acutely important given that Ukrainians mistrust their government authorities more than almost any other nation in the world. That’s due in large part to years of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their rivals and by Russian-backed actors. The results of these policies will be analyzed more after Sunday’s presidential election in which a comedian who plays a president on TV may just become leader in real life.

Yet another example of the power of popular entertainment to shape our lives.

Why it matters: Ukraine is a prime example of how a country can be torn apart by malicious, foreign-inspired misinformation. The editorial board of The Financial Times warns that more nations might suffer similar unrest if disinformation, especially in the public health sector, is not defeated. In America, meanwhile, disinformation could disrupt another election. Chatter on social media platform 4Chan is discussing how to delegitimize the U.S. census through disinformation. Census data is the basis for the number of representatives that local communities have in state and federal government.  

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. We work with dozens of local and international reporters, video journalists, artists and designers to bring you stories you haven’t seen elsewhere, provide you with context missing from the news cycle and illuminate the continuity between the crises we cover. Support Coda now and join the conversation with our team. No amount is too small.

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Inge Snip

Inge worked as Coda Story's Impact Editor to solidify Coda Story's thinking on how Coda's journalism sparks change. She's also worked with UNDP, UNICEF, Forbes, Outriders, and EurasiaNet.

Beats: health, environment, tech, disinformation, gender.