In reality, fake news is nothing new. But it took the 2016 US presidential election to bring it to the world’s attention. False articles with explosive headlines such as “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead”, conspiracy theories and doctored images swept across Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Western security experts blamed Russian operatives. Most believe they manipulated social-network users in an attempt to sway the US electorate towards ultimate victor Donald Trump, despite Kremlin denials.
While we’re much more acutely aware of the influence social media has over our lives than we were four years ago, the tactics of arch political manipulators online haven’t changed a great deal but instead swelled in scope and power, says Andy Patel, a researcher with Finnish cyber-security company F-Secure.
“In the early days of social media, the companies never for one minute thought about how their platforms could be used maliciously – as useful as they are, they’re amazing tools for spreading disinformation,” he told i.
“Russia were the ones that initially set up accounts to divide people on political issues – that’s something that’s been amplified in the past four years.”
Big tech has gone to great lengths to acknowledge its past shortcomings and is keen to avoid another reputational battering in 2020. Facebook, Twitter and Google were among the major tech names to announce in August that they were working closely with US government agencies to protect the integrity of the election.
Twitter has said it will label or remove tweets pre-emptively declaring victory before the result has been certified, while Facebook and Google will similarly block election-related adverts after the polls have closed. Meanwhile, Microsoft has foiled hackers – linked to Russia, China and Iran – which were attempting to gather intelligence from individuals and groups linked to the forthcoming election.
This new-found diligence is not simply down to a desire to be seen to be doing the right thing, explained Amy Binns, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire.
“Facebook and other social-media firms don’t want this to be an election where they are again accused of swaying the result by allowing fake news, large numbers of Russian bots, any kinds of external influence – because more people will call for them to be regulated,” she says.
And she noted: “They don’t want to be externally regulated because it could cause them to lose money.”
Because social media is not subject to the same regulations as reputable news organisations, politicians such as Mr Trump have been able get away with spouting lies and misinformation. Similarly, radical groups and conspiracy-theorist collectives such as PizzaGate and QAnon have been able to flourish under the platforms’ reluctance to be seen as thwarting free speech.
But many observers think it’s unacceptable – or untenable – to allow vast organisations such as Facebook to continue to broadcast news without being subject to the same laws as newspapers and television channels.
“In the next 12 months… we’re going to see major tech reforms – either proposed or actually acted on,” says Justin Fier, director of cyber intelligence and analytics at the cyber-defence firm Darktrace. “If you use the war on terror as an example, these platforms would never allow an al-Qaeda training manual to be uploaded, but other groups [such as QAnon, which the FBI has classified as “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists”] have been allowed to remain until very recently.”