Fake news unlimited: From politics to science

The rise of the Internet also brought with it an exponential growth in the number of scientific publications, conferences, forums and other science-related outlets in the public sphere.

A man reading from a smartphone (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man reading from a smartphone
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent wave of warnings about possible attempts by “a foreign country” to covertly skew the outcome of the upcoming election in Israel – coupled with the allegations surrounding the role of fake news in recent election campaigns in the US, the Brexit referendum in the UK, and other public debates worldwide – is bound to keep the issue of fake news in the public eye for the foreseeable future. However, this phenomenon touches on many more areas beyond elections and politics.
The exponential growth in the amount and availability of data, an inevitable result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is the root cause of a variety of tectonic shifts in our everyday lives – from healthcare to vacations, from shopping to banking. We now live in a very different world, compared to the way things were just 10-20 years ago. If you think I’m exaggerating, just try to picture yourself going through one full day without Wi-Fi or cellular communications.
Perhaps nowhere are these changes more evident than in the field of mass media, or more accurately what we consume as “news.” Long gone are the days when Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and their colleagues appeared at regular hours to pound the tribal drums at the heart of Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” – informing us of the “news” and sorting out on our behalf what is important and what is not. Jerry Seinfeld summarized this well: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
Traditional media – and, perhaps more so, regulatory bodies created by democratic governments in order to maintain certain standards of “objectivity,” “morality” and “ethics” – were slow to respond to the appearance of the Internet. And since an absolute void exists only in outer space, the media arena was quickly filled with news sites, blogs and later by what is now commonly known as social media.
This created a flood of “news” that is not subject to traditional checks and regulation. Couple that with better technology (faster processors, cheaper storage, etc.) and you get a world in which people have much better access to unfiltered information, leaving them exposed to a constant barrage of “news,” out of which they are expected to sort true from false all by themselves.
This situation, as we now know, has already been used by a variety of entities (governmental, commercial and criminal alike) to manipulate content for their own gains.
In fact, even the phrase “fake news” fell victim to those who contributed to the creation of this situation in the first place. Claims of proliferation of “fake news” by “foreign entities” are now raised almost every time an armed conflict, civil unrest or election occur. This epidemic has reached a level in which it’s perceived by many as a real threat to the sovereignty of and democratic institutions in many countries.
AS CONCERNING as the situation described above may be, it’s only one aspect of the fake news epidemic. Another arena in which such news has become a serious threat is the field of science news.
Twenty or 30 years ago, there were a limited number of well-established and highly influential scientific publication channels. Such publications (Science, Nature and The Lancet, to name a few) enjoyed widespread recognition among scientists worldwide as highly credible and accurate.
As in other areas, the rise of the Internet and the digital age also brought with it an exponential growth in the number of scientific publications, conferences, forums and other science-related outlets in the public sphere.
While a positive development at its core, this growth in the quantity of scientific material ready for public consumption, and the fierce competition among the various outlets, have also led to some erosion in the publishing standards of science-related articles. This has affected not only the newcomers but also some of the older, well-known publications. Subsequently, the number of retracted articles following their publication is on a constant rise, and there appears to be no end in sight.
Scientific misconduct is not a new phenomenon. While marginal, the manipulation of data – either by modifying, falsifying or simply ignoring unwelcome results – is probably as old as scientific research itself.
The problem is that while in the past these cases remained in relative obscurity, with minimal effect on the public, nowadays it all becomes common knowledge very quickly – and the correction process is much more difficult, if not impossible altogether. Once the article is published, it may remain in cyberspace forever. Even if retracted and denounced by its authors and the magazine in which it was published, there is a fair chance that it will continue to mislead members of the scientific community and the public at large. This typically happens because some interest groups tend to recycle information that appears to support their cause at the expense of the truth.
A WELL-KNOWN example is the case of Andrew Wakefield, a former British practicing physician and senior lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital in London, whose claims of a link between the MMR vaccine, autism and inflammatory bowel disease were first published in 1998 in The Lancet and then retracted 12 years later.
Never mind that these claims have been reported in the British Medical Journal as “based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud” – and forget the fact that Wakefield himself was banned from practicing medicine by the UK General Medical Council – the lie just refuses to die. It lives on through websites, social media, blogs and other digital venues, causing even some scientists to continue referring to it as a truth. By the time the article was retracted in 2010, it had been cited 647 times in other scientific publications. By 2018, this number had almost doubled to 1,206 citations.
Even more alarming is the possibility that some people may have avoided vaccinating their newborns against deadly diseases in what is perhaps the ultimate example of the disservice “fake science” can have on our daily lives.
Unfortunately, Wakefield is not the only bad apple in the bunch. A quick search online will yield dozens of cases from recent years alone, spanning areas such as life sciences, physics, computer science, chemistry and social sciences. It appears that no field is immune.
Furthermore, it appears that the real danger lies in the growing sentiment of disbelief and suspicion that science-related reports are now greeted with. Even the most credible sources now often suffer from being bundled and labeled as potentially fake and equal to the less credible ones.
HOW CAN we minimize the “fake” effect in general news and in science news in particular?
Well, to begin with, it’s pretty clear what does not work. History tells us that censorship and over-regulation will not be able to put the genie back in the bottle. After all, they failed to do so in the first place years ago and with much less ground to cover. The idea, suggested by some, of creating independent regulatory bodies that will rank and credit the stories based on agreed-upon criteria will also not work. Such regulators won’t be able to keep up with the ever-increasing flow of reports that will need to be checked.
The answer to this problem has to come from the natural incentive system of the publishers themselves – the bottom-line profit of the for-profit publishers and the brand reputation of the not-for-profit ones. Self-imposed internal inspection motivated by the desire to keep the channel profitable or maintain the reputation of the not-for-profit scientific outlet is the only effective tool in sight.
For these market-driven solutions to work, consumers of news reports and scientific news must act responsibly by avoiding those channels that will fail to take measures to counter the threat of fake news.
We see some encouraging signs in the making – e.g., the recent announcement by Facebook that it has detected and eliminated 738 accounts originating in Iran, which were aimed at spreading fake news, as well as the emergence of retractionwatch.com, a website detailing retracted scientific articles. While maybe not so effective at first, these measures seem like steps in the right direction.
Fake news is here to stay, but we can mitigate its impact by letting free market forces work – in this case, letting the concerns for the bottom-line profit or good reputation drive the publishers to be ever more careful in selecting what they choose to publish.
Given the endless number of fake news items that will no doubt continue to flood us, there is no way the publishers can face this challenge with human agents sifting through the piles of incoming news. The only way to do it will be by using smart, newly designed, automated platforms that will combine cutting-edge technologies in the areas of AI and big data.
In order to succeed, these systems will have to be able to operate seamlessly and rapidly behind the scenes, a challenge researchers at top technological universities around the world are already working on.
The writer is the vice president for external relations and resource development at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.