What do fake reviews and fake news have in common? Textual cohesion strategies.


fake everything

Automated fake news detection is something of a holy grail at the moment in deception research, machine learning and AI in general. Yet, despite all the high profile committees and investigations dedicated to it, fake news is not an isolated problem; it is part of the general epistemic malaise that has caused us to refer to our current era as ‘post-truth’. With this in mind, I have approached the problem of fake news detection building on my work on fake review detection. This is not to trivialise the problem; despite its greater social and political impact, the production of fake news is an equally commercial operation (complete with its own writing factories eg. Macedonia, Kosovo and Maine).

In 2018 I presented a paper on fake book review detection at Stanford University’s Misinformation and Misbehaviour Mining on the Web workshop. One of my key findings was that authentic reviews were significantly more likely to contrast positive and negative aspects of a book, even in 5-star reviews; positive reviewers often hedge their praise and include caveats (see examples 1 and 2 below). Fake reviews were significantly less likely to display such a balance – basically, deceivers were unable to suggest good points and bad points about a book they hadn’t read. Instead, deceptive reviewers would make a single point and then continue on – elaborate –  in the same vein, sometimes in a rambling or waffly manner (for example, 3 below).

1. You’re not going to find endless action, shocking plot-twists, or gut-busting comedy. What you will find is a simple beautiful poetic story about life, desire and happiness.

2. Sometimes things happen a bit too conveniently to ring true, sometimes it is predictive, but in the end you won’t care.

3. This story is extremely interesting and thought provoking.  It raises many questions and brings about many realizations.  As you read it becomes increasingly clear we really are not so different after all.  Great read!

Figure 1: Extracts from Amazon book reviews used in Popoola (2018)

Contrasting is most often (although certainly not always) signalled with ‘but’ – as in example 2  above – so a rough and ready technique for testing whether Contrasting is more common in truth than deception is to compare the frequency of ‘but’ in known real and fake reviews. I followed up my initial findings by analysing 1570 true and fake book reviews and found authentic reviews do use ‘but’ substantially more than fake reviews and that authentic reviews are more likely to use ‘but’ to signal Contrast relations (see Figures 8 and 9 below; full findings, along with data source, can be found in Popoola (2018).)

                                     USE OF ‘BUT’ IN TRUE VS. FAKE REVIEWS

screenshot 2019-01-28 08.43.10

What does this have to do with fake news? Presenting all sides of a case or argument, in the name of objectivity and balance, is a conventional feature of the news story genre because it is fundamental to journalism ethics. Balancing and Contrasting are not the same but linguistically they can be performed  with similar language – contrastives. Contrastives include conjunctions such as ‘but’, ‘either’ and ‘or’, conjunctive adverbs such as ‘however’ and prepositions like ‘despite’. This can be contrasted with the use of additives – e.g. ‘and’, ‘also’, ‘in addition – for Elaborating. Contrastives and additives are two of four general linguistic strategies for connecting texts  – cohesion devices (REF).

My hypothesis is that there will be variation between the different news sources in the proportion of additives vs. contrastives used  – and, just like the book reviews, authentic news sources will use more contrastives.  Since additives are the most common way of connecting textual information (‘and’ is the third most common word in English, six times more frequent than ‘but’ – good word frequency list here if you are into that kind of thing), I calculated the relative use of contrastives compared to additives

I piloted this approach on a 1.7million word corpus of political news stories downloaded from 15 news sources in Spring 2017. The 15 sources were a representative mix of legacy and contemporary news media from acrosss the political spectrum: Bipartisan Report; Breitbart; Freedom Daily; The Daily Caller; The Daily Mail; Addicting Info; Alternative Media Syndicate; The Daily Beast; Think Progress;  BBC; CBS; CNBC; CNN; The Huffington Post; The New York Times.

I used the following definitions for the cohesion strategies:

  • contrastives = ‘but’|’either’|’or’
  • additives = ‘and’|’also’|’in addition’.

Figure 2 is a scatterplot of each news outlet’s proportion of additive and constrastive relation cues. It shows substantial variation in text cohesion strategies with six news sources lying over one standard deviation from the mean (i.e. outside of the yellow rectangle); additive cohesion is particularly frequent for The Daily Mail, Breitbart, Bipartisan Report and The Daily Caller , while contrastive cohesion is particularly frequent for The Daily Beast and the BBC.


additives contrastives map

Figure 2: Scatterplot of variation in text cohesion strategies in 15 online news sources. x=Contrastive /  [Contrastive+Additive]; y=Additive / [Contrastive+Additive]. Coloured rectangle represents 1 SD from mean.

Example of additive textual cohesion from Breitbart

breitbart additive norm size

Full article here: https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2017/03/31/h1b-move-funded-cheap-labor-lobbies/

Example of contrastive textual cohesion from The Daily Beast

daily beast contrastive norm

Full article here: https://www.thedailybeast.com/nikki-haley-steps-up-in-syria-crisis

So, we can see that the textual cohesion strategies can differentiate articles within the genre. My hypothesis says that the news articles using more additive strategies are more likely to be fake, in this case that The Daily Mail and Breitbart are more likely to produce fake news than the BBC and The Daily Beast. How do we know what is fake? Since we are a looking at the overall source rather than individual articles, we can use a general scoring system. For now, we’ll use the simple ‘failed a factcheck’ test. All the news sources that have ever failed a factcheck are marked in red in Figure 4 below.

cohesion map

Figure 4: Scatterplot of variation in text cohesion strategies in 15 online news sources. News sources with failed factchecks marked red (source: mediabiasfactcheck.com)

As can be seen, 9 of the 15 news sources have failed a factcheck recently; factchecking by itself is not the most sensitive discriminator. However, 6 of the 15 news sources tend towards additive cohesion strategies and all 4 of the highest additives have failed factchecks whilst neither of the prototypical contrastive texts are ‘fake by this definition.

So, it would seem that just like with fake book reviews, there is a tendency for fake news to lack shades of contrast. Perhaps deceivers are less likely to contrast their lies with the truth because it dilutes their deception. As you read, I’ve been adding more news sources to the analysis and refining the cohesion strategy specifications. Stay tuned!

























Genres of mass deception

In 2006, a federal court judged four of the ‘Big Five’ US tobacco companies – Phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds, British American Tobacco, Lorillard (sold to RJ Reynolds in 2014) – to have been operating for more than half a century as a de facto criminal enterprise guilty of racketeering. In November 2017, US tobacco companies finally issued, through national TV and print media, a series of statements correcting their sixty year deception of the American public. They had been appealing the original judgement for over ten years.


The ‘racket’ was the continued sale and marketing of tobacco products in full knowledge of their addictive properties and their causal connection to lung cancer.  Under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act 1970, these tobacco companies were held to have defrauded smokers i.e. obtained smokers’ money by dishonest means, specifically “deceiving smokers, potential smokers, and the American public about the hazards of smoking and second hand smoke, and the addictiveness of nicotine” (United States vs. Phillip Morris et al, 2006, p4).

Below is a list of deceptions maintained by the ‘Big Tobacco’ enterprise:

  • false denial of the adverse health consequences of smoking
  • publicly denial that nicotine is addictive
  • concealment of research data and other evidence that nicotine is addictive
  • false denial of the manipulation of nicotine levels to create and sustain addiction
  • deceptive marketing and public statements suggesting ‘low tar’ cigarettes are less harmful than full-flavor cigarettes
  • false denial that their marketing targets youth
  • false and misleading public statements denying that environmental tobacco smoke (passive smoking) is hazardous to nonsmokers

How does one deceive the public for so long (linguistically)? My approach to this question is to first identify the agents and channels of deceptive communication. We know who received the deceptive messages but who were the senders? Did they use agents/messengers? What channels did they use?

The ‘Big Tobacco’ enterprise built an infrastructure of deception by establishing a number of front organizations i.e. groups that appear to independently support or be motivated by one particular purpose but are actually a ‘front’ for another group whose covert agenda they secretly serve. Front organizations are agent-messengers that appear to be senders. Examples of the forms that front organizations might take include think tanks, associations of consumers or workers, and single-issue interest groups.

Chief among these was the Tobacco and Industry Research Council (TIRC), founded in 1954, which later changed its name to the Centre for Tobacco Research (CTR). TIRC/CTR was established on the strategic recommendation of Hill & Knowlton, public relations counsel to the Big Tobacco enterprise. Backed by money from the Big Tobacco enterprise, it ran a multi-million dollar research programme providing substantial grants for ‘independent’ scientific research into the health effects of smoking. This produced a body of research that obfuscated the link between smoking and cancer and left their causal connection as an “open question”. TIRC/CTR also funded research that diverted discourse away from the dangers of smoking by suggesting alternative causes of cancer such as air pollution, diet and genetics.

This programme of decoy research clearly had a deceptive purpose. However, the research itself was not necessarily deceptive – it created doubt rather than false belief by challenging the anti-smoking research attracting the attention of the American government and health organisations at that time. Neither was this research directly responsible for the mass deception of the American public since the public was not the audience for scientific research.

In the 2006 judgement, Judge Kessler noted that The Big Tobacco front organisations disseminated ‘commentaries’ on both pro- and anti-smoking research through a variety of publication channels, including:

  • management commentaries in annual reports, read by business professionals
  • newsletters and booklets targeting medical professionals with favourable research summaries.
  • public statements, comments made by tobacco-friendly scientists discrediting research that linked smoking with cancer.

Whilst annual reports and newsletters helped communicate the tobacco deception to professional outgroups, as shown in Figure 1 below, press releases were the most influential channel for reaching the general public. Every publication and statement made by a scientist connected to the enterprise was accompanied by a press release. This would be sent out to thousands of editors and then transmitted to the general public through newspapers and popular magazines.

Thus, the press release plays a doubly deceptive role; it reports the deceptive framing of the discourse around tobacco/cancer research and then amplifies its interpretation though popular media. Indeed, PR agency Hill & Knowlton prided themselves on their ability to spin “obscure scientific reports favourable to the industry into headline news across the country”.

Deception Infrastructure S

Figure 1: Mass deception; infrastructure, channels and genres

Below (Figure 2) is one example of press release distortion of research in the tobacco domain.  This 1955 study from the British Empire Cancer Campaign (a forerunner of Cancer Research),  published in the British Medical Journal, reports a nuanced set of findings in relation to the carcinogenic properties of smoking. It reports findings indicating that: i) tar is not carcinogenic in mice,  ii) condensation from tobacco smoke is carcinogenic in mice and iii) carcinogenic effects vary between species so more research is needed.

This nuance is lost in the press release, which seizes on the first finding related to tar and extends it to smoking and tobacco in general. The press release, authored by Hill & Knowlton, draws it authority by reporting the statement made by the TIRC chairman Timothy Hartnett and uses repetition to reinforce its point three times in the first page – “Outstanding British scientists could not induce cancer in experimental animals with tobacco smoke derivatives” / “Experiments conducted at several leading British medical research institutions had failed to induce any cancers” / “18 month experiments fail to show any connection between cancer and smoking”.


Figure 2: Comparison of British Medical Journal article and TIRC press release

The fact that this repetitive message itself references a message that is practically self-authored (considering the close relationship between TIRC and Hill & Knowlton, who even shared the same office at one stage) is indicative of the low information quotient in this press release. Yet providing information is arguably the main purpose of the press release genre. What we have here, then, is a deficient or deviant genre communication – inauthenticity (deception) has compromised the integrity of the genre.

The same has been suggested about the annual reports produced by the TIRC, “which read much like industry position papers” (USA vs Phillip Morris et al, 2006, p58). The extract below, from the 1958 TIRC annual report, is illustrative:

A problem may well be obscured, and its solution delayed, by the soothing acceptance of an oversimplified and immature [tobacco theory] hypothesis. The proponents of the tobacco theory have generated increasingly intensive and extensive propaganda. As a result, a non-scientific atmosphere, conducive to prematurity, unbalance, and inadequacy of public judgement, has pervaded the whole field. The prohibition concept discounts or ignores all considerations of smoking benefits in terms of pleasure, relaxation, relief of tension or other functions.

Once again, in this case by allowing bias to enter annual reporting, a genre is compromised through performing a deceptive purpose. These two examples suggest that the tobacco deception was partly sustained by ‘genre fronts’ – communications that appear to serve one conventional purpose but in fact fulfill functions of another genre or are simply deficient.

Press releases are more central to mass deception than annual reports because they are more frequent and produced for immediate impact in popular media. Press release spin is picked up by editors and transferred to newspapers and magazines – sometimes wholesale, sometimes with additional fervour. This resulted in a news environment that actively facilitated the disinformation strategies of the Big Tobacco enterprise leading to a massively misinformed general public.

The selection of headlines, news articles and editorials in Figure 3 below reflect the general tenor of the ‘decoy discourse’ maintained by the tobacco industry, which involved: attacking the integrity of government scientists, casting doubt on environmental controversies such as the use of pesticides and climate change, and linking cancer to spurious causes. The confluence of tobacco advocates and climate change skeptics is a striking feature of this mass deception.


Figure 3: Selection of newspaper and magazine items used to support tobacco advocacy. Taken from ‘Bad Science: A Resource Book’

Newspaper items come in a variety of sub-genres, for example news articles whose purpose is to present factual information and editorials that present an opinion. Editorials themselves can be written by newspaper staff or invited writers as ‘op-eds’. Both of these sub-genres can be used for deceptive means i.e. the presentation of false facts in news articles and the advancement of an undisclosed agenda in the case of editorials. In such cases, the news genre loses its features of objectivity and transparency and becomes distorted as ‘fake news’.

Taking the ‘tobacco deception’ as a case study, it would seem that the infrastructure for maintaining this deception was built on the deviant use of a variety of genres – annual reports, press releases, newspaper/magazine items – that were connected by channels invisible to the general public i.e. front organizations and funded scientists. The schema presented above will be used in future posts to evaluate similar deception controversies in the environmental and health domains.