The Malicious Origins of Fake News

Fake news has received a lot of attention lately for its power to change opinions and impact public discourse. Today, the amount of fake news content being produced by individuals and editorial teams have increased drastically, with one in four Americans admitting to sharing this type of content.  However, the question has to be asked: Why has fake news been so effective? The answer: The way fake news spreads is nothing new. The strategy was first implemented by cybercriminals looking to spread viruses, malware, etc. during the rise of the internet.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, blogging gained popularity as people turned to the internet as a vehicle to express their voices, share opinions, and connect with others. Websites like WordPress, Xanga, and LiveJournal exploded as places to host blogs, and with it came the referral advertising revenue generation. Unfortunately, ad revenue mixed with targeted keyword search turned blogging’s innocent intentions into malicious activity as hackers began to leverage blogs to spread malware and viruses. Cybercriminals would host malicious ads on blogs or create sites that would post virus-filled content, knowing their virus would be spread with the clicks produced by targeted keywords. Site hosts became privy to the viruses and began to blacklist sites with blogs that spread infected content. However, hackers would simply create a slightly new URL and start again, and even if a site was only available for a few hours, there were still users infected, ensuring the viruses’ success.

Part of what makes fake news seem credible to some is its viral nature. It is one thing for fake news to be written and published; however in order to be effective, an article needs to spread and be clicked on. In order to accomplish this, the creators of fake news are adapting the playbook used by early cybercriminals by applying the malicious targeting strategy to social media, creating the perfect system to spread fake news.

With their click-driven model, sites like Facebook and Twitter are ripe for spreading information, whether it’s truthful or not. Fake news sites employ the same tactics to gain readership and disseminate their articles, and just like the cybercriminals of yesteryear, their efforts have proven successful. Fake news sites post an article and often share the articles on their social media accounts, knowing that it will receive clicks and shares based off of their wild headlines. Ultimately, the site publishers make money off of the advertisement revenue while the general public is deceived.

Due to the impact of fake news in the recent election cycle, many are now speculating about what can be done to combat it. Although the dissemination of fake news replicates an old problem, there are new tools in the IT and cybersecurity industries that could be applied to prevent the spread of fake news. Today, many security companies offer products and services that mine social media networks to identify malicious content/links that look to compromise other users. In theory, the same technology can be used to help decipher how credible a news site or the information in a particular article is.

One of the tools used by the cybersecurity industry is a scoring system for malicious sites and pages.  They analyze the content and rate it based on criteria such as its hosting history. One way to fight the fake news problem could be to adapt these systems to identify sites spreading false information. If recognized as a site with untrue information, it could be flagged, similar to the way early sites were blacklisted for malware.

While this solution would help, it certainly would not stop the spread. Especially considering that the bulk of this information spreads via social media, leaving the responsibility in the hands of the social media networks themselves. Social media companies therefore must decide how to combat the spread of false information, whether by taking down fake news sites’ pages/profiles or warning users when a post seems suspicious, while striking a balance where their platforms are still viewed by users as an open and free place to share their voice.

Fortunately, tools do exist in the cybersecurity industry that could help combat against this new form of yellow journalism. The big question that we’ve yet to receive an answer to is: To what extent will social media networks and others forums decide to use available technology to try to solve the fake news problem?