The Impact of Fake News

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impact of fake news

This ‘Emerging Issues’ piece explains the relevance of fake news to the aviation industry, in response to new technologies and participatory communication. Using the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption and the MH370 disaster, it assesses the impact of fake news on trust and resilience, and examines reasons for its initiation and spread. Finally, fake news is studied from a holistic perspective, with the piece discussing the current and future need for further research and analysis of accountability, communication practices and technical innovation.

In an increasingly interconnected world, accessible data and information have the capacity to powerfully transform perceptions of social, economic, political and environmental uncertainties. The phenomenon of ‘fake news’ is a leading example of how open and transparent forms of communication, propagated by innovative technologies (Grunes, 2017), can influence public consciousness, trust and resilience. Following unpredictable socio-political events, such as the 2016 US Presidential Election, there is an increasing necessity for research into the dynamic between communication and verification, as well as further engagement with the potential implications of fake news on critical infrastructure.

This ‘Emerging Issues’ piece uses the microcosm of the aviation industry to explain how fake news can affect trust and resilience during disruptive events or crises, before highlighting its evolution and the need for further research and analysis. Defined as ‘news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers’ (Alcott & Gentzkow, 2017, p.213), fake news is intrinsically linked to the credibility of communication outlets, journalistic responsibilities, and data visualisation. Fake news can emerge from deliberate actions or misinformation; in the case of the former, perpetrators of fake news may spread false information to damage the reputation or stature of an individual, company or industry. Alternatively, fake news can be initiated or spread out of ignorance, without malice. Nonetheless, fake news potentially has the same consequences and impact regardless of the reasons behind its creation and emergence into a public sphere (Perl et al, 2018).

Whether mitigating the effects of natural hazards, investigating aviation accidents, responding to threats to international security, or seeking to manage internal disputes, the aviation industry has a need to balance public relations alongside safety, integrity, and adaptation. Effective and verifiable channels of communication are therefore essential to trust and resilience, particularly at times of unpredictable and ongoing events. Under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the industry inevitably has had to contend with opportunistic fake news, whilst also maintaining a coherent and trustworthy relationship with global media. This was highlighted during the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010 (Reichardt et al, 2018), and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in 2014 (Zafra & Maydell, 2018), as briefly described here.

The Eyjafjallajökull Volcanic Eruption: Sensationalism or Fake News?

Following the onset of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the dispersal of an ash cloud across Europe heightened fear of widespread disruption to the aviation industry, subsequently increasing pressure on ICAO, the aviation authorities, and airlines. Aircraft were not permitted to fly due to the potential danger of volcanic ash to engines and components (Alexander, 2013), so the unknown duration of the disruptive event led to unpredictable decision-making and conflicting dialogue within the industry. As the media began reporting events, disparities and inaccuracies became commonplace in European newspapers (Reichardt et al, 2018), largely as a result of journalistic ignorance and misinformation. Therefore, with the industry struggling to adequately manage the closure of airspace across Europe, communication failures led to facts becoming distorted and several British newspapers running stories predicated on exaggeration. With headlines such as ‘Britain is Shut to the World’, the print media’s approach to the event increased anxiety amongst industry stakeholders (Leong & Howlett, 2017). Consequently, the trust of stranded passengers, investors, and European governments, as well as the integrity of the industry, was fundamentally undermined.

The narrative of the UK-based print media contrasted with less sensationalised accounts of the aviation shutdown in Icelandic and Nordic newspapers, leading to a notable difference in the perceived level of risk of volcanic activity to aircraft, and the vulnerability of the aviation industry to widespread disruption. Whether the approach taken by the print media can be labelled fake news or mere sensationalism is debatable, since it is likely the stories were not construed out of malice to cause disturbance. Nonetheless, the event illustrated how the media had the potential to exploit the uncertainties and inconsistencies of the aviation industry (Reichardt et al, 2018). The industry had needed to utilise international media to communicate with passengers, but contradictory dialogue between the ICAO, the aviation authorities and airlines, as well as incoherent decision-making, had given newspapers and media outlets leverage to exaggerate factual information.

In 2018, reports of potential volcanic activity at both Eyjafjallajökull and the nearby Katla volcano have once again emerged in UK newspapers, with coverage of the potential impact on the aviation industry. However, reports have been referred to as ‘scaremongering’ by leading scientists, because claims were unsubstantiated and research conducted had not supported the narrative.

Nevertheless, the coverage of potential activity highlights the continued relevance of fake news and/or sensationalism on this topic. Following the rapid expansion of social media platforms since the 2010 closure of airspace, inaccurate reporting can potentially be more problematic since technical innovation allows news to spread quickly through algorithms and user-orientated attributes. Unlike other volcanic events, Eyjafjallajökull is somewhat synonymous with disruption to the aviation industry following the 2010 eruption. Therefore, the print media’s approach to reporting the event appears to have had a continued impact on the perceived risk of volcanic activity from Eyjafjallajökull. As the reach of social media and other participatory methods of communication continue to expand, the notoriety of Eyjafjallajökull is likely to be increasingly attractive to perpetrators of fake news in a digital age.

The MH370 Disaster (2014)

The MH370 disaster provides another example of how fake news can thrive on unexplained events in industries such as aviation (Zafra & Maydell, 2018), a relevant socio-political context due to the potential impact of inaccurate reporting on the public. The disappearance of flight MH370 also gained notoriety, with the uncertain and unknown fate of those involved providing reason for a continued international media interest. Therefore, the event provided scope for fake news, with participatory communication platforms allowing users to potentially share, manipulate or distort information. Whereas the Eyjafjallajökull eruption facilitated fake news through policy flaws and inaccurate reporting, the mystery of the MH370 disaster provided sufficient ambiguity for less credible channels of communication to generate speculation and intentionally encourage conspiracy theories.

With the aviation industry unable to explain the event, as a result of what Zafra & Maydell (2018, p.43) term an ‘information void’, fake news had the leverage to rapidly spread rumor and undermine the industry’s integrity; for example, tweets wrongly depicting the location of the aircraft were shared, projecting false information through likes and retweets (Zafra & Maydell, 2018, p.51). Such examples of fake news highlight its damaging potential at a time of distress, with ramifications on trust towards Malaysian officials and ‘Malaysian Airlines’, as well as industry experts and investigators (Guo et al, 2015).

The Evolution of Fake News

By discussing fake news, this article also highlights how its form and impact evolved between two crises in the aviation industry, namely the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano and the MH370 disaster. As innovative technologies led to the creation of algorithms and participatory platforms, fake news gained a global and digital reach; for example, individual users (citizens) can digitally generate and intentionally share fake images, text and microblogs through social media (Jin et al, 2017). Therefore, the proliferation of fake news has become less controllable from the perspective of the aviation industry, since it is no longer solely the outcome of sensationalism or misinformation in the print media (as it appeared to be during the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull); instead, it is a larger problem stemming from innovative technologies and participatory communication (Shao et al, 2017), in the hands of everyday, normally non-expert, citizens.

As fake news evolves in narrative and reach, adapting to the communication methods that technology facilitates, there is a need to study its changing influence on the trust and resilience of political institutions, industry, and society. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality, for example, are likely to become increasingly relevant to how both individuals and institutions communicate (Royakkers et al, 2018), encouraged by the innovation of sophisticated smartphone applications and participatory devices that enable information to be shared instantaneously. These approaches could potentially exacerbate the damaging impacts of fake news, and lead to situations in industries such as aviation, that are more problematic than those experienced during the crises covered in this ‘Emerging Issues’ article. For aviation to be more resilient to the economic loss, reputational damage, and distrust that has previously been the outcome of malicious reporting and misinformation, decision-makers and strategists must have the ability to recognise and act upon threats posed by emerging technologies. Therefore, aviation can be used to highlight the likely demand for further research on fake news in the area(s) of legislation, technical innovation, and media accountability, particularly in response to issues such as international security, crisis management, and data protection.

Whilst this piece focuses on two events, the aviation industry regularly contends with incidents of fake news; examples in 2018 have included distorted video footage of a ‘Dragon Air’ jet performing stunts during Typhoon Mangkhut, viewed and widely shared on the Facebook page ‘Time News International’. The footage confused supposed events with a previous incident concerning a ‘Beijing Capital Airlines’ flight, which had no connection to Typhoon Mangkhut; therefore, Time News International ‘misused the scare’ to capitalise on fear amongst the public. That said, regardless of its falsifiability, the footage had the potential to damage the stature of the companies to which it can be associated, spreading information and manipulating video in a manner that intentionally threatens the integrity and trust of stakeholders in the aviation industry. This recent example of fake news, therefore, highlights the increased need for ‘victims’ (such as passengers, crew, investors, airlines, governments and aviation authorities) to minimise impact and prevent reputational damage.

In addition to a plethora of legal ramifications, media responsibility and scrutiny require further study and analysis from academic and practitioner perspectives, as was illustrated by the highly publicised claims of fake news ahead of the 2016 US Presidential Election (Guo & Vargo, 2018). As a political event which led to the rise of President Trump, the impact of fake news on the election drew attention to its capacity to transform existing relationships between society, the media, and establishments in western democracies, such as the US. Therefore, the demand for further support in counteracting and mitigating fake news, is likely to increase as industries such as aviation seek to protect themselves and act to discredit unverified or inaccurate information, whilst also maintaining public and media relations. Forms of support are likely to include research and analysis, facilitating multidisciplinary expert engagement, offering technical and legal expertise, and encouraging capacity development both within companies and across social, political and industrial sectors.

Since fake news is still a rapidly emerging area of research, current studies often focus on the impact of false information in a particular socio-political sector or industry, such as aviation and US politics. Future research, however, could approach fake news from a broader perspective, where engagement is interdisciplinary, and focuses on the strengthening and application of preventative measures and legal guidelines, rather than on responsive actions. For instance, much attention has been attributed to the changing roles and responsibilities of social media companies, notably Instagram and Facebook. Such participatory platforms are not likely to have been designed with the mitigation of fake news as a priority; instead, these companies are having to adapt and transform retrospectively to reduce the spread of misinformation as well as to eradicate deliberate and intentional untruths. To avoid the need for such actions, fake news – including mitigating its potential effects – should be considered as an integral aspect of the innovation of new technologies and systems, including how they should be implemented in a public space.

Furthermore, fake news is often unforeseen, and should be factored into contingency arrangements for individual projects and exercises, rather than solely approached at an industry-wide scale. For instance, in areas such as event management, individual companies, venues or persons could be a victim of fake news, an occurrence that had not be anticipated, and for which only industry-wide protection measures can often be afforded. Therefore, cross-scale legal expertise is likely to be required to aid procurement and to protect against unfair accusations, a research area thus far somewhat neglected by academics and practitioners. Finally, since an increasing body of research studies the accountability and legalities of fake news (Klein & Wueller, 2017), there is a growing need to recognise the reasoning for its creation and spread from a holistic perspective, and to understand the level of intent, malice and/or ignorance of the perpetrator.

In response to this emerging field, GSDM can provide governmental, intergovernmental and private sector organisations with interdisciplinary expertise on the laws, regulations and dynamics of fake news, media responsibility and technical innovation. Dr Daniel Beech is a GSDM associate specialising in Disaster Risk Reduction, Early Warning Systems, Critical Infrastructure, Hazard Communication, and Emerging Technologies.

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