Why Fake News Campaigns Are So Effective

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Wharton's Eric Clemons looks under the hood of fake news campaigns.

In this opinion piece, Eric K. Clemons, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, looks under the hood of fake news campaigns to explain how we have become so vulnerable to them. These often effective efforts to manipulate public opinion traffic in misleading and distorted facts — and outright lies. Still, their carefully crafted messages and precise audience selection create the desired effect. The result poses a significant threat to democracy, Clemons writes. The first part of this two-part series (read part two here.) looks at how the process of creating fake news works. Part two will look at the distribution of fake news. Clemons is also the author of  New Patterns and Profit: A Strategist’s Guide to Competitive Advantage in the Age of Digital Transformation.

Slowly, society is becoming aware that social media have been weaponized to maximize social discord and minimize social cohesion. Even more slowly, we are becoming aware that fake news can be used to manipulate elections and to create distrust in the results of elections. Fake news may now represent an existential threat to democracy, not just because it can be used to subvert and countermand the will of the people, but also because it can be used to destroy the people’s will to act together. As Kara Swisher has noted, Facebook was not hacked in the 2016 Elections or the Brexit Referendum. Facebook was designed from the beginning to be used exactly as Russian hackers and others have used it.

We need a policy for minimizing the damage from the abuse of social media. Facebook will not design such a policy quickly, because any changes that minimize the impact of fake news will directly reduce Facebook revenues; enabling fake news is profitable for Facebook. And minimizing fake news will indirectly reduce Facebook revenues as well; anything that gets users really excited keeps them online, making them available for advertisers and other Facebook revenue producers.

The term “fake news” should not be used to refer to something the reader dislikes or disagrees with.  Likewise, fake news no longer refers to a simple lie. Modern fake news is carefully designed so that its intended readers will not be able to detect that it is false. As importantly, it is crafted individually for each group of readers, to resonate with those readers and to produce the strongest possible emotional response.

Fake news has progressed well beyond the unsophisti­cated telephone-based lying campaigns from the Nixon-Douglas Senate Campaign of 1950, and even beyond today’s niche-based broadcast advocacy journalism and the fake news of Breitbart, Fox and other sources on the left and right. Modern fake news is precisely targeted, with profiling data from Facebook and other sources, analyzed by Cambridge Analytica and other experts in voter manipulation. Modern fake news is dependent upon harvesting and analyz­ing personal information; modern fake news is inseparable from privacy violations.

Distorting Reality

It’s difficult for most of us to understand that the hackers who used Facebook data to draft and target fake news set out explicitly to use Facebook to distort users’ reality. It’s difficult for us to understand just how much firms like Cambridge Analytica were able to learn. Academic studies confirm how much can be learned by examining a user’s history of likes and dislikes, including an individual’s sexual orientation, race, gender, political affiliation, education, income and details of family history. This is without needing to analyze posts and the posts of friends! We all think we are too smart to be deceived by fake news, but that is no longer true.  With this much information available to the designers and distributors of fake news, we are all too smart to be deceived by fake news designed for someone else; most of us can be manipulated by the fake news designed to deceive us as individuals.

“I need to know what your current grievances are; I need to know what makes you really angry.”

But how does it work? How does a fake news craftsman go about generating effective fake news stories? The basic principles are simple. I’m not going to show you how to do this to encourage the creation of more fake news! I am going to describe how this is done because unless we understand what is unique about modern fake news we are going to underestimate the threat. Worse, we are going to be unable to design effective countermeasures. This is tailored, targeted, effective lying, one lie at a time but on an industrial scale. It’s something that the framers of the Constitution never envisioned when they drafted the First Amendment, and it requires a novel solution.

So how would I go about crafting fake news targeted at you? First, I need to decide what I want you to believe. Second, I need to know what your current grievances are; I need to know what makes you really angry. I need to know what you think has been taken from you, and what you want to regain or retain. I need to know what you do and don’t already know, and what you do and don’t already believe.

Using these, I am going to construct an argument that explains how you were unjustly deprived of what you want, by people advocating the position I want you to oppose.  And I have to construct this argument with supporting claims that I have carefully selected.  The claims don’t need to be true.  It’s merely essential that you not now know them to be false, and that you do not now believe them to be false.

But that sounds so abstract and theoretical. Let’s take a specific example. Let’s not use Trump or Hillary Clinton, or any other current politician, and let’s not use gun control or immigration, or any superheated contemporary issues  Let’s use an issue where there is still strong disagreement along party lines, but where a scientific consensus has emerged. Suppose I really want you to oppose any attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change. How would I craft a message for you? That depends on who you are, and what I know about you.

Suppose you were an out-of-work coal miner. There are lots of reasons why coal industry employment is depressed today. Some have to do with the current, very attractive price of natural gas. Others have to do with the cost of pollution abatement. But the most significant reduction in mine employment is automation; we just don’t need as many miners as we used to.

But if I want to get you to oppose climate change mitigation, I can’t tell you that you lost your job to natural gas or automation. It might be most effective to tell you climate change was a Chinese hoax, designed to reduce American national competitiveness by reducing our reliance on coal while the Chinese continued to exploit this inexpensive energy source. To convince you that climate change is a hoax I point out that the weather has always been uncertain and that climate has always varied from decade to decade. I assure you that there is no possible relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global temperature; humans are just not capable of altering a planet’s temperature, any more than humans can alter the length of the planet’s day. Therefore, reducing U.S. coal consumption will have no impact on the weather, so obviously you lost your job to a Chinese lie. I tell you that the Chinese know climate change is a hoax, which is why China still relies on coal. You were harmed, and no one gained but the Chinese.

“With data harvesting from social media I can tune my fake news to the beliefs of each group of target readers.”

Another great thing about fake news is that it’s easy to design an effective lie for each target audience, but much harder to design a compelling rebuttal that resonates and is easily understood by that same audience. Suppose I try to explain to the coal miner that microwave ovens work because the microwaves in the oven are carefully tuned to match the resonant frequency of water molecules, causing them to move around much more rapidly; that’s what heat is, rapidly moving molecules. And that’s why food gets hot while the plate does not — meat and vegetables are mostly water, while paper plates and ceramics are not. Suppose I then explain that when sunlight hits the surface of the planet the light that reflects back into space does so at just the right frequency to cause the CO2 molecules in the atmosphere to move around more quickly, getting absorbed and heating the atmosphere. This wasn’t the result of careful design as in your microwave oven, just cosmic bad luck.

Suppose I then explain that warming the atmosphere is like putting a blanket on your bed. You don’t heat up until you melt! You heat up until the blanket gets warm enough to start leaking heat itself. So CO2 traps heat, the atmosphere heats up, and then when it gets hot enough extra heat starts leaking heat into space. We get warmer, but we won’t melt. Still, weather will change, and with enough CO2 it will be like piling on lots of extra blankets. We will get uncomfortable. Ice caps will melt and sea levels will rise. Glaciers will melt, and rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers will dry up, with catastrophic effects for India, Pakistan and China.

Which would you believe? Global warming is a Chinese hoax, which cost you your job, with no benefit to anyone outside of China? Or some complex argument about microwaves, resonant frequency of water molecules, light bouncing off the surface of the earth and matching the resonant frequency of CO2 molecules, heat then leaking from the atmosphere to achieve a new higher temperature equilibrium, and rivers drying up around the Himalayas?

Tuning In

But remember, with data harvesting from social media I can tune my fake news to the beliefs of each group of target readers. Suppose you are not an out-of-work coal miner. Suppose you don’t know a lot of statistics, but you do suspect that something is changing.  It looks like summers are hotter and it looks like hurricane seasons are longer and more destructive. How do I reach you and convince you that climate change is not occurring?

Remember, I also know all about you when I start crafting my story for you. First, I point out that the climate has always changed. So, yes, the climate may be changing now. But that has nothing to do with human activity. Suppose I mention that the Little Ice Age (1150-1460) destroyed the Viking settlements in Greenland, but that the cooling was not caused by a reduction in medieval human fossil fuel consumption! More importantly, the reversal of the cooling was not caused by a sudden increase in human use of fossil fuel or by any other human activity. I tell you that this kind of change just happens.  It always has happened and it always will.

Next, I point out to you that you’re right, the weather is more extreme this decade, but I explain that that doesn’t mean anything either. Yeah, a basketball player who shoots 85% from the foul line will miss about one shot in seven. But he might occasionally sink fifteen shots in a row. Or he might miss five in a row. That doesn’t mean he’s not still an 85% shooter. It just means that some days he gets lucky and some days he’s off. That’s how statistics work if you look at enough events. You wouldn’t trade him after a single bad game. You wouldn’t double his salary after a single great game.

Then I tell you that it would be just as foolish to give up your SUV, or to vote to require renewable wind power or nuclear energy, just because the weather had the equivalent of a single bad game.

“The second part of fake news is getting each story to its intended readers and not to others.”

Again, there is no simple way to counter this well-constructed argument. I can try to show you that over the course of several decades the definition of normal, for hurricanes or for temperature, has changed. This is the equivalent of showing you that your basketball star is not an 85% shooter any more. This requires more statistics than most of us know or want to know. Then I also need to show that the change in the weather is not only real but plausibly related to human burning of fossil fuel and atmospheric levels of CO2. To do this I need to construct computer models of atmospheric and ocean warming, including quantum mechanical explanations of heat absorption and models involving the reflectivity of cloud cover.

Who to Believe?

Again, which would you believe? That climate always changes and always reverts to normal? Or that the definition of normal for the planet has been changed by human activity, according to complex statistical analyses and huge computer-based models of the weather? Would you trade your star player after a bad game? Would you trade your SUV for a subcompact after a bad hurricane?

The first part of fake news is crafting a lie, backed up with a set of supporting arguments selected because they will convince the intended readers, not because they are true. A fake news campaign involves creating a set of different lies, each backed up by a different set of supporting arguments, with each designed to convince a different group of readers.

The second part of fake news is getting each story to its intended readers and not to others. A fake news story sent to the wrong readers will produce a backlash, since many readers will be able to detect the false statements and deliberate misinformation in fake news designed for others. They will sense the intended manipulation, and react negatively to it. The second part of fake news involves harvesting private information from Facebook and other sources, to direct fake news stories to their intended readers. The distribution of fake news stories is as closely tied to privacy violations as the drafting of those stories.

We will discuss the distribution of fake news in a subsequent article.

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