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US election shines light on fake news as the new reality

In the lead-up to the US election, FBI director James Comey's letter about the agency looking into newly discovered emails related to the Hillary Clinton investigation dealt a significant blow to her campaign.

But for many voters, the damning FBI intrigue only deepened from there. Hundreds of thousands of people on Facebook saw a shocking follow-up story: "FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide".

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The thing is, the second story was a complete fabrication, about a fictional FBI agent in a fictional American town and published on a fictional newspaper's website - "The Denver Guardian". But that didn't stop the story's spread: it was picked up by numerous other rogue websites and shared by outraged Americans on Facebook posting comments such as   "Wow two more to the Clinton body count!" and "Someone needs to stop that murdering witch!"

In the election post-mortem, the role of Facebook and other online platforms has come under intense scrutiny. Its influence on our news consumption is well established: almost half of American adults (44 per cent) say they get news from Facebook, according to a Pew study.

A familiar thread of critiques of Facebook is the "bubble" effect - people's social media feeds only exposing them to content they agree with from their like-minded friends and family, intensifying their beliefs and prejudices, and blinding them to others.

But the other thread, which is gaining increasing attention, is what is proliferating inside some of these bubbles: fake news, usually with outrageous clickbait headlines, which is warping our sense of what is real and what isn't.

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One analysis by Buzzfeed this week found engagement with the most popular fake news content -  such as the "Denver Guardian" story, or another one erroneously claiming Pope Francis had endorsed Trump - intensified significantly in the final three months of the election campaign, so much so that the engagement (measured by shares, reactions and comments) of the top 20 stories from fake sites surpassed that of the top 20 stories from major mainstream news websites.

There were fake stories on both sides, but they overwhelmingly advantaged Trump - 17 of the top 20 stories were pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, the website found (Facebook responded to that analysis on Wednesday by saying despite the high levels of engagement for these 20 stories, they represented only a "tiny fraction" of the total on the platform.)

One creator of viral hoaxes, Paul Horner, expressed some surprised to The Washington Post on Thursday that his bunkum work was so successful, and even picked up by members of the president-elect's campaign.

"His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist," said Horner. "I just wanted to make fun of that insane belief, but it took off. They actually believed it."

Facebook's chief executive and founder Mark Zuckerberg has publicly dismissed the notion that fake news on his platform had coloured the election. He told a tech conference last weekend that the notion fake news had influenced the election in "any way" was a "pretty crazy idea".

But others in the industry have not been so certain. Google's chief executive Sundar Pichai told the BBC he was "not sure" if it had helped swing the election, which had extremely tight margins in some states, and asserted a willingness to address the issue.

"It is a learning moment for us and we will definitely work to fix it," he said.

Both Facebook and Google announced on Monday they would work to stop fake news websites from using their advertising services,  one step to remove the financial incentive for creating fake news in the first place.

"Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher's content or the primary purpose of the web property," Andrea Faville, a Google spokeswoman, said in a statement to The New York Times.

Dealing with the issue is complex though. For one, there are different types of news misleading the public - some news is wholly fake, designed to deceive and easy to debunk, like the dead FBI agent story, or the Pope's endorsement of Trump.

Others are vague and unverified tales  - such as one this week about anti-Trump protesters preventing an ambulance from reaching a desperate man, a father of a four-year-old girl, who went on to die as a result. One of the many hyper-partisan right-wing websites that carried the story, AmericanNews.com, said supporters of Hillary Clinton "are on the streets putting the safety of all Americans in jeopardy".

"They are doing more harm than good and they need to be stopped."

But none of the websites carrying this story could say where it happened, or who the man was, citing a single screenshot of an anonymous post on Facebook as their source. Neither Fairfax, nor the fact-checking website Snopes, could find any correlating reports or information to verify it (AmericanNews.com did not respond to a request for comment).

But the story has nevertheless flourished on Facebook, where it has been shared by thousands of people, riling supporters of the  president-elect in a country already on edge.

There are also stories produced by sites that claim to be satire that are nevertheless taken seriously by many readers. The Burrard Street Journal, a Canadian website, make clear on its "about" page that it produces "satire and comedy" and that its stories are fiction, but its piece about Barack Obama refusing to leave office if Trump was elected was nevertheless picked up and shared as news by scores of other sites in September.

And then of course, there's the issue of incorrect stories in the "mainstream media": fabricated stories in top-selling celebrity magazines about phantom pregnancies and engagements, or factual errors by major news organisations - a problem from which Fairfax is not immune, though at least it, like most reputable publications, will correct them. 

Nevertheless, the pressure is on for Facebook to take far greater responsibility in cases where fake news is deliberate and clear cut.

"When the company decided it wanted to reduce spam, it established a policy that limited its spread," Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci, from University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, wrote in The New York Times this week. "If Facebook had the same kind of zeal about fake news, it could minimise its spread, too."

This could include flagging or differentiating sites that produce fake news, she argued.

"In addition to doing more to weed out lies and false propaganda, Facebook could tweak its algorithm so that it does less to reinforce users' existing beliefs, and more to present factual information," she wrote.

"This may seem difficult, but perhaps the Silicon Valley billionaires who helped create this problem should take it on before setting out to colonise Mars."

As Facebook grapples with this issue, Trump's election also presents an even greater challenge. Given that the president-elect's team has spread fake news before, and that he himself has actively peddled conspiracy theories - from the "birther" lie about Obama to insinuating Ted Cruz's father was involved in the JFK assassination - as he enters the White House, the relationship between what's real and what's fake in the news will grow ever more complex.