What are the real consequences from fake news?

On October 30, 1938 long before there were televisions in most American households, before the Internet had been built, before social media had taken hold and well before the term fake news was in common use; a radio broadcast caused widespread alarm and unease.  On the eve of Halloween 1938 the radio drama The Mercury Theater on Air broadcast The War of Worlds.

Much of the show was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins thereby causing confusion among some listeners.  Many of those who heard the broadcast had tuned in after it had begun during a lull in a more popular radio show and consequently they missed the introduction.  As a result some of these people reportedly believed that they were listening to real news reports of a Martian invasion in New Jersey.

Back in 1938 the options to verify facts in real time were scarce, primarily limited to selecting another radio station or calling friends on the telephone.  Of course you could also wait until the newspaper was delivered the next day, but with a full-blown Martian invasion in progress would the paperboy get through to complete his delivery? And even if the newspaper was there would it be worth the risk to emerge from hiding to face the Martian death rays to get it?

Pew research study

Fast forward about eight decades and access to real time information has virtually exploded, but so has the ability to distribute misinformation or fake news. A 2016 Pew research study reported that sixty-two percent of Americans now get their news from social media with Facebook being reported as the top news source among various social media platforms.

Infamous errors

Despite the urgency to be the first to report on a breaking news story, most traditional media outlets will take the time necessary to vet a story prior to distributing the content. While inaccurate reporting by big name media outlets has occurred in the past it has fortunately been very infrequent. Two of the more infamous errors include the Chicago Tribune reporting that Dewey had defeated Harry Truman and the Baltimore Evening Sun headline stating that all of the Titanic’s passengers were safe.

Fortunately these errors are notorious in part because of their rarity. False reports in traditional media outlets are usually followed by retractions or corrections to maintain the integrity of reporting.

Social media and fake news

The distribution of fake news stories vary in origin and motivation. Fake news websites intentionally publish misinformation, often to drive additional traffic to social media sites or to generate advertising revenue.

Some fake news sites are intentionally designed to simulate real news sites in an effort to mislead those that visit them, thereby intending to add credibility to what is being reported. Often these sites utilize variations on the Uniform Resource Locator or URL of real news sites with web pages that are designed to mimic those of real news outlets, however frequently they are crude imitations.  Often the items reported on these sites are outrageous or salacious, but not totally unbelievable, which results in them being shared through social media outlets. This in turn drives additional traffic to the fake news web sites, thereby adding to the cycle. Many real news stories are hard to believe, so fake news is often accepted and shared.

Distribution of fake news

Another much less sinister derivation of fake news is a direct result of the general public’s unprecedented ability to distribute information via social media. People who see events unfolding can now broadcast information out via social media, often including photos and videos, virtually in real time. This grass roots type of reporting has many benefits; however it can also result in erroneous information being forwarded. Members of the public may misinterpret what they are viewing and in all cases lack the resources that a traditional media outlet would have to verify the facts prior to distributing the information. One such example was reported in the New York Times when an individual in Austin, Texas tweeted that professional protesters were in town to demonstrate against Donald Trump.

The person who sent out the tweet incorrectly associated buses that had been used to bring attendees to an unrelated convention as having been used to bus in professional protesters to the anti-Trump event. This tweet helped to fuel a nationwide conspiracy theory and was shared 16,000 times on Twitter and over 350,000 times on Facebook highlighting just how viral fake news reporting can get. This effect can be confounded by the fact that often the first reports of a developing incident can come via social media posts from those at the scene while traditional media struggles to catch up.

Impact of fake news

How can fake news reporting impact upon public safety? Can these reports simply be ignored since they don’t reflect real world incidents? The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 highlights the potential for misinformation to cause real panic and alarm. During the late summer of 2016 many areas of the United States were in the throes of creepy clown sightings, many of which remain unsubstantiated.

Were there really any clowns or was the entire mania nothing but a social media hoax? Clearly some credit for the scare should be allotted to social media hype, how much isn’t easy to determine.  What is clear is that the general public can often react to real events in irrational and unwarranted ways, fueled by fear of the unknown and at times distrust of authority. For example, during the Ebola scare that occurred in America in 2014 people often boycotted any location that was associated with the disease outbreak despite the fact that health authorities were saying that they had been deemed safe.

Many members of the public are on edge due to a steady stream of reports about worldwide terrorism and active shooter attacks. This is despite the fact that the odds of being killed or injured in a traffic accident far exceed the potential of being the victim of terrorism or random violence. In several locations within the United States public panic has resulted from loud noises that were perceived to be gunshots. Panic has ensued in locations such as shopping malls and airports without a valid cause for alarm. These events highlight just how hypersensitive and reactive that the general public may be to false news reports. Some of this effect is no doubt a result of the increased access to information and news that began with twenty-four hour cable news stations and expanded with the development of the Internet and social media.

Responding to misinformation 

The question for law enforcement professionals is how, if at all, to respond to fake news reports. Should attempts be made to counter any fake news postings that could potentially cause unrest or panic in their communities? Drawing too much official attention to a fake news report may magnify its effect on the public; conversely presenting facts that directly counter misinformation may reassure the public thereby nipping a potential issue in the bud. It may also be a challenge for law enforcement agencies to definitively determine the veracity of social media postings and decide if something is in fact a hoax. For example, if people are reporting sightings of creepy clowns that can’t be verified by law enforcement, does that mean that they are not actually occurring or are the clowns just elusive. There may be some basis in fact to fake news reports or they may be complete fabrications. If no criminal conduct occurred should any public safety resources be directed toward vetting these types of reports? Certainly if social media posts have a potential to undermine public safety they should not be completely ignored. Any response will need to be thought out and implemented on a case-by-case basis.

Deceptive tactics

Law enforcement authorities may also consider using fake news themselves as a tool. History is replete with examples of deceptive tactics used to fool criminals, such as fugitive round ups conducted using fake sweepstakes letters to lure criminals into custody.

Word of caution

Releasing fake information to the media however, should receive careful deliberation prior to being implemented. The expression winning the battle, but losing the war should come to mind. The release of misinformation to the media may achieve a short-term objective, but it may result in a lack of trust that could persist for a long period in the future. Law enforcement and the media share a symbiotic relationship. Intentionally using the media to distribute false information could damage the reputations of both entities and result in long-term damage. No one likes being used or feeling duped.

As the reliance upon social media continues to grow, so will the means and opportunity to distribute misinformation, both intentionally and by error. Public safety professionals must be alert and aware of trending misinformation that can affect public order.  They must be prepared and have a plan on how to counter it when necessary. Fake news can have very real consequences.

fake news

Stuart K. Cameron
Chief of Department
Suffolk County Police Department

Stuart Cameron is a 32-year veteran of the Suffolk County Police Department. He was promoted to Chief of Department in November of 2015.

Chief Cameron is a graduate of the 208th session of the FBI National Academy and he has a Master’s Degree from SUNY Albany. Chief Cameron spent over a decade overseeing the operations of the department’s Special Operations Commands.

During his career Chief Cameron has received numerous awards and commendations including Cop of the Month; Cop of the Year; Meritorious Service Award, Five Excellent Police Duty Awards, and seven Department Recognitions.

He has published articles on a variety of public safety and counter-terrorism related topics in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, FBI National Academy’s The Associate, IACP’s The Police Chief, IACSP’s The Journal of Counter Terrorism & Homeland Security, CBRNe World magazine and the IABTI’s The Detonator magazine, among others.