No proof fake news can alter a person's political views: Expert

Fake news can be used to shape political agendas but is unlikely to alter one's political view, said Mr Morteza Shahrezaye.
Fake news can be used to shape political agendas but is unlikely to alter one's political view, said Mr Morteza Shahrezaye.

Two overseas experts give different takes on the power of disinformation

There is no concrete proof that online falsehoods can change people's political views, though these can be used to shape political agendas by creating false impressions, said a political data expert from Germany.

"And there is even evidence against it," Mr Morteza Shahrezaye of the Bavarian School of Public Policy, Technical University of Munich, told the parliamentary Select Committee on fake news yesterday.

It is not that hard to identify fake automated online accounts and a person can spot one easily if he comes across, say, a Twitter account with 10,000 tweets in one day, he said. In a joint submission with his colleague, Associate Professor Simon Hegelich, they argued that fears of orchestrated attempts to transform political opinion on social networks are exaggerated.

"It is very unlikely that anyone is changing his or her mind on important political issues just because of some suspicious accounts in social media," they wrote.

Mr Shahrezaye also cited a study by Harvard University's Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society on on the 2016 United States presidential election. It found that just two of the top 100 most shared election stories on Twitter and Facebook were fake, and did not have significant impact in swaying opinions.

But the researcher acknowledged that political agendas can be influenced by online fabrications. It is easy to create the impression that an opinion is very popular online, he said. "Journalists, politicians or normal citizens might fall for these wrong trends and comment on them, thereby making them even more popular," he said.

Mr Shahrezaye called for social media firms to be more transparent by explaining the goal of their algorithms, which determine which posts become more popular.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, a committee member, said the aim of these is to maximise profitability. Calling this a classic case where commercial and public interests may clash, he said: "And we will then have to decide what is in the public interest and see how their commercial interests and the public interest can be coincided, right? That is the task of every government." 

Mr Shahrezaye concurred.

Public hearings to fight online falsehoods: Read the submissions here and watch more videos.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'No proof fake news can alter a person's political views: Expert'. Print Edition | Subscribe