What are they doing?
Launched by the BBC on the 12th November, the Beyond Fake News (BFN) project is a combined programme of original research, TV documentaries and special reports across the BBC’s networks in Africa, India, the Asia-Pacific, the Americas, and Europe. The project’s raison d’être is media literacy and the BFN team have organised events across the world to emphasise this, from panel debates in India and Kenya (two countries I’ve written about before on this blog), hackathons in Asia and the Americas and special news reports in the UK news.
Why are they doing it?
Jamie Angus, Director of the BBC World Service, says he is fulfilling a promise he made earlier this year to “move beyond just talking about the global ‘fake news’ threat, and take concrete steps to address it”. The BBC’s action comes on the back of original research they undertook where volunteers gave them complete unrestricted access to their encrypted messaging apps so researchers could try to understand how and why fake news spreads through messaging services.
What does the BBC’s research show?
The BBC were given unique access to WhatsApp messages by volunteers in Kenya, Nigeria and India to study how fake news spreads through social messenger apps:
Participants gave the BBC extensive access to their phones over a seven-day period, allowing the researchers to examine the kinds of material they shared, whom they shared it with and how often.
Combining machine learning with approaches such as auto ethnography, semiotic analysis and network analysis, the research comprised a corpus of 120,000 media articles, 3000+ messages from participants, over 200 hours of ethnographic interviews and network analysis of 22,200 social media profiles. The result is a mixed methodology of quantitative and qualitative approaches that provides ‘big data’ analysis as well as micro qualitative data analysis.
In India, the research’s main finding was that nationalist identity is a driving force in the decision to forward on/share fake news with others. The research found that in India people largely do not want to incite violence when they share fake news but that they do so anyway for ‘nation building’ purposes. For example, fake stories about India’s socioeconomic progress and stories about Hindu revivalism are shared as they appeal directly to emotion – the result being that people are less likely to fact check the content.
In Kenya and Nigeria, nationalism is still at play but in manifests in the form of ‘duty’:
Rather than being motivated by a duty to ‘nation build’, people [in Kenya and Nigeria] are more likely to feel duty bound to share breaking news just in case it is true and could affect those in their networks. A sense of duty to democratise access to information is also seen to be at play here.
There are two driving forces at work here: (1) the instant nature of social media and (2) traditional media resentment. The first is common across the world; with the advent of social media and instant updates, everyone is in a constant race to be the first to break a news article and also the first to share a news article. This hastiness comes at the cost of fact checking the article as people are trying to share as much content as quickly as possible.
The second factor is more unique (although not completely) to Kenya and Nigeria. In both countries, trust in heritage media outlets is very low and press freedom is similarly very poor; of the 180 countries in the RSF’s press freedom index, Kenya is ranked 96 while Nigeria is ranked 119. In countries where journalists are largely restricted by the government, social media is seen as a way to circumvent control by democratising access to information – if you have an internet connection, you can view content created by anyone, anywhere in the world.
In the three countries the BBC looked at, there were also interesting findings on the political alignment of the news produced and how this affects network virality. The research found that left-wing fake news sources tend be to be quite scattered and ideologically heterogeneous while right-wing content is more stable and ideologically homogeneous. The result is right-wing fake news spreads faster not simply because there is more of it, but because the stories are more closely linked together across topics and therefore reinforce each other’s claims, appearing as more convincing news stories. These are the most frequent topics the BBC’s research found:
Dr Santanu Chakrabarti, Head of Audience Research at the BBC World Service, says the motivation for this research is “the question of why ordinary people are sharing fake news, even while they claim to be worried about the way fake stories spread”. The research aims to address the paradox of those who are concerned about fake news yet unknowingly share fake news, inadvertently contributing to the problem they are concerned about. By identifying the topics of the most shared fake news content, we can glean insights into why people share fake news. The research also found other findings on Facebook usage, generational differences, and the interface between images and words in fake news stories.
Where can I find it?
The Beyond Fake News homepage at https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/beyond-fake-news gives information about previous and upcoming events while BBC’s fake news homepage https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cjxv13v27dyt/fake-news provides reports on the data. Similarly, programme pages featuring BFN broadcasts can be found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06r9vvf and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/n3ct5fmx. The BBC’s BFN report can be found at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/latestnews/2018/bbc-beyond-fake-news-research.