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Digital Citizens News

The Fake Epidemic: Digital Citizens Report Shows How Everything From Fake News to Fundraising Scams are Undermining Americans Trust in the Internet

Published Thursday, April 6, 2017

Contact: Adam Benson, 202.999.9104, adam@digitalcitizensalliance.org

Washington, DC, April 6, 2017 – The Internet is being overrun by an onslaught of fake information – from politically motivated fake news to fundraising scams to disturbing techniques to trick social media users to support causes – that is seriously undermining Americans’ trust in the digital world, according to a new study and research released today by the Digital Citizens Alliance.

While so-called Fake News has gotten most of the attention, the epidemic of fake, false and misleading information is running rampant across nearly every facet of the Internet. It’s both confusing consumers and making them less likely to rely on the digital platforms that play a critical role in their lives.

“This study shows that we are reaching a tipping point on whether the Internet can be trusted or not,” said Tom Galvin, Executive Director of Digital Citizens Alliance. “We need the entire ecosystem – from the digital platforms to brand advertisers– to step up their game. That includes digital platforms taking a greater responsibility for what appears on their networks and brands playing a greater role in determining where their advertisements appear. It’s going to take a serious effort to turn this ship.”

Digital Citizens’ report, “The Fake Epidemic: How Fake News, “Like-Farming” and Scam GoFundMe Campaigns Are Undermining Trust in the Internet – And What We as A Society Must Do About It,” found that:

  • Half of Americans weren’t sure something was fake news when they came across it. In fact, 1 in 4 said they shared something or sent it to others only to later find out it was fake or false information.
  • Sixty-one percent said that fake news and information made them less likely to rely on the Internet as a source of information.
  • Sixty-one percent said that when mainstream advertising shows up next to fake and false information online it is more likely that readers will be tricked into thinking the news is more credible. The issue of advertising has become a major issue as dozens of advertisers announced a boycott of Google’s YouTube platform over brand-name ads showing up next to objectionable content such as videos promoting terrorist recruiting, escort services, counterfeit goods, and pirated content.

Americans believe that Facebook, Google and Twitter have taken some good first steps on issues such as Fake News – but they also believe that “If they want to be seen as responsible, they should identify and flag fake news that appear on their platform.”

The report explores several prominent instances of fake, exaggerated, and misleading information that are causing consumers to question the information they are seeing on their favorite online platforms. Specifically, Digital Citizens breaks down these consumer confidence eroding behaviors into three categories:

Fake News: Website operators are creating sensational stories to generate outrage in the hopes of going viral and cashing in on the page views. Several prominent examples included in the report illustrate the motivation for these stories: money. Clicks mean ad revenue, so there is an incentive for fake news websites to be exaggerated to grab people’s attention.

At the same time these websites are attracting mainstream advertising, which lends the appearance of legitimacy to websites peddling fake news or anything else. Digital Citizens’ report illustrates ads for Gap, Symantec’s Norton Antivirus, and Dodge RAM showing up on fake news stories. One story alleged Democrats had legalized child prostitution in California while another alleged Hillary Clinton had an affair with Yoko Ono several decades ago.

GoFraudMe: While legitimate GoFundMe pages have helped raise over $3 billion, there is a dark side to the platform: numerous efforts to use fake stories to dupe well-meaning donors into giving away their money. In one example from November 2016, a scam artist set up a fund seeking $10,000 to help a woman named Sadey recover from a motorcycle. Instead, he apparently began almost immediately withdrawing the money and Sadey never saw a dime.

Like-Farming: On social media platforms fraudsters are using tales of woe with a plea (example: “Share this image and Mark Zuckerberg will donate $5 to a children’s hospital”) to simply like or share information. By creating a “pool of likes,” scammers have a list of potential targets that they can then try to trick.

These like-farming efforts are intended to create false credibility around philanthropic efforts by getting tens of thousands of Facebook users to click “like” in support. Just like mainstream advertising can make fake news seem real, a Facebook post with several hundred thousand likes can fool a person into taking it seriously.

Read the full report >>

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