Krešimir Macan: It is easy to recognize fake news – for starters, check who is the author

In the article in newspaper Glas Slavonije, our Krešimir Macan has commented the trend on fake news and stated that Croatia had witnessed this phenomenon even before the Trump case.

Krešimir Macan

In a heap of information and disinformation, for the average news reader, it is getting more difficult to recognize what in the media is true and what is presented as a lie. How do you comment on this?

For a common reader, it is hard to recognize fake news at first, especially if it confirms what reader would expect to be true. Let’s first define what fake news is – it is information that is invented in order to mislead someone and to inform people in the wrong way. In some part, it can use accurate or semi-accurate information, but most of the content is fictional or taken from another source of fake news. We have to distinguish journalist mistakes, which are more often because of high frequency and speed of news that media is currently processing from the deliberately fake news that are being released. These are simple mistakes that credible media can quickly endorse.
I’ll give you a fresh example. It was fake news that Grbins father was active on the Serbian side at the time of the Homeland War, which Grbin himself denied by publishing a photo of his father wearing a Croatian army uniform and calling out an independent politician Bruna Esih, because such news was spread across social media and networks under her name. She reacted to the claiming that there is only one official page of Bruna Esih, where no such news was published. I have also published Grbin’s response, since lately in Croatia right opponent oriented portals are a great source of fake news. So, what if they do spread fake news, and the story is linked to a wrongful identification, leading to which webpage of Bruna Esih is official can be considered a mistake that can easily be corrected, and to which Esih herself contributed because she does not have an official website on Facebook. We would easily distinguish the other/fake websites from her official site if she had one, the same way as President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has.

How to recognize fake news?

First of all, we are talking about an interesting title, the type of news that attracts you to click on the title of the article (there are not so many in print, with the exception of 7Dnevno, but this has resulted in numerous lawsuits against the publisher and it probably survives due to inefficiency of our judiciary) – such as SDP (Social Democratic Party) MP’s father is a war criminal! Such an incredible title for something that that is revealed 22 years after the end of the Homeland War should make you suspicious. You start reading the news looking for the author, and if that person signed it (most often they don’t), next step is looking for impressum and name of the publisher of the portal. If any of listed information is missing, it is most likely that we are talking about an unreliable source which is not in accordance with Croatian Electronic Media Act. Your next step is to Google a topic to research if any of trustworthy sources reported similar news. But, the question is who will undertake all those steps, especially a person who is just a “simple” reader of news – practically no one. Moreover, if such news come through your social media networks from someone who you consider your friend or from a person that shares the same opinion will end up confirming your attitude toward a topic. You will end up sharing the news just because you agree with the content of the article.


What is the origin of fake news phenomenon and how did it manage to expand globally in the last couple of years? How much the digital age has contributed to it? Can we say that today no one is interested in the truth, that everyone is going after sensationalism?

Fake news, fake accusations or rumors exist from beginning of the mankind and a lot of evil was committed on the basis of false beliefs – from racial discrimination to genocide during the World War II and even during the Croatian Homeland War. So, we are not talking about a new phenomenon. Remember the propaganda of JNA (Yugoslavs People Army) and KOS (The Counterintelligence Service) after the fall of Vukovar when they claimed and published the news through agency Reuters that there were 40 slaughtered Serbian children found in the basement in Vukovar. Fortunately, on the urgent demand of Croatia, a respectable agency withdrew the news and apologized. Every crisis in life creates fake news – from private to global.
Social networks and digitalization have allowed fake news to live longer than ever before. We’ve already said that people with similar beliefs are more likely to share certain news without checking further and such behavior is accepted by social networks and browsers. Until today Facebook and Google refuse to take responsibility and edit the content that is shared or displayed on their networks. This is done by complicated computer algorithms which estimate what would be interesting for each one of us based on our interests and activities. Estimation is done by attractiveness of the content (number of likes, shares and comments).
Here is another example – portals that support Trump, published a story that Pope Francis has forbid the Catholics from voting for Hillary, publishing the news on their Facebook page, and the news started spreading in a speed of light among the same group of people on social networks. If you have even a slight interest in Trump, algorithms will recognize such interesting content for you, due to stories in the background, and will offer you such news as interesting. If you do a Google search on this topic, there will be news related to Trump and Pope Francis popping first in the search engine since even Google knows what is interesting and has high readability. In that way you close the circle. Those who wanted to believe the fake news continued to share it, and the algorithms did recognize that there was no human editor behind the story to help determine mass-readability of fake news from obscure irrelevant portals. Those same portals continued to earn thousands of dollars at the same time because visitors continued to click the ads which were offered at the same time.
Facebook and Google are aware of this problem now and they are changing algorithms so that irrelevant, undesirable sources of information and fake information can not appear high in searches nor can be offered by social media and networks as relevant. Plus, they have restricted the possibility to make profit from ads that appear next to fake news.


Can you find more fake news in the mainstream media or on independent portals, those outside the midstream corporate media?

Mostly on less known portals, mainstream media is getting better in recognizing fake news, although, such media published even satire on they own portals as real news, sometimes even publishing fake news. But now they are more in the control, and one way to check if news is fake is to check if major media published the same news. If you cannot find it, it’s probably fake even though it sounds bloody good. Fake news is more appealing to right-wing voters because they are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and that the media, for example, turned against Trump and will not publish the news that benefits him, but only negative because they work for Hillary, so they turn to alternative sources, many of which are stacked with fake news. If you did not know, the most read fake news about the Trump in the 2016 was published on portals run by teenagers from Veles in Macedonia who made thousands of dollars a day. According to their own claim, they even tried to work on fake news on Senator Bernie Sanders (Democratic opponent of Hillary Clinton), but it did not go so good since the left-wing voters were not interested, they do not share unselectively. As soon as they switched to Trump, the business flourished.
The same situation is in Croatia today. You have tons of unsigned portals that report fake news that spread such news to social networks like in Grbin/Esih case.


Does the difference between populism and fake news exist or is it all the same, depending on politics, pragmatism and manipulation?

The language is similar. The difference is that populist politicians have to speak about concrete and verifiable matter if they are going after long political career. A lie has short legs and politicians cannot afford it, but they do not separate themselves from the networks that publish fake news in their name. Lie is a lie, and there is no other name for it. Populism is adulation to voters and appeal to lower passions. Unfortunately, two years ago we had a situation that real news, usually in politics, seemed so unbelievable that people could not believe that such thing was happening. Luckily, since then we have made a positive step ahead.

What is the situation in Croatia? Can we say that Croatia does not fall behind Western media, when it comes to reporting and publishing fake news, fake news?

Absolutely, we are following the trends, I can even say we are trend setters. Trend of fake news strongly started developing at the end of 2014, during the presidential campaign of Josipović/Grabar-Kitarović, where I personally could testify to an explosion of portals that published lies about Josipović – I remember a lie about Josipović’s father where he was accused of participating in a massacre of Franciscans in Široki Brijeg, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1945. Once you step into such a thing that is no way back. Last example on Grbin/Esih is just a drop in the sea of fake news, and the inspiration came from portal, I suppose. Portal writes about everything and they still exist. We will see until when.


By many Croatia is also politically polluted with fake news virus and gossip communication. The Parliament has become a platform for fake news reporting. How do you comment on everything?

Živi zid started first with stories like that, and today the virus has spread to other representatives and this is the thing that presidency should sanction appropriately. Parliament representatives enjoy immunity for every spoken word and for that reason they should have much higher responsibility for what they present as facts. If we turn the Parliament into another source of fake news, it will not be good.

In conclusion – how to fight fake news in the times we live in?

It’s a never-ending struggle. If you see news appearing in search engines or expanding through social media you have to react to stop it. There are certain legal solutions that regulate the conduct of media, but what if these media are outside the law, registered outside of Croatia or are not registered at all. Then there is a need for wider social action because currently there is a need for additional legal regulation of responsibility of people who are behind such actions in order to bring them back to legal framework behavior. Portals that are truth-oriented also help to stop fake news distribution (Faktograf in Croatia, Istinomet in Serbia). Facebook and Google also help with the rankings of quality portals as credible news. France and Germany have successfully reduced the impact of fake news during their latest election cycle, and it also awaits Croatia. If you do not put an end in the beginning, you risk turning monster against all of us, ending up with no protection. Unfortunately, we already have individual cases of such behavior happening today.


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