It’s been a full fifteen minutes since you last checked your Facebook account (oh, the self restraint!) and the part of your brain that allows your fingers to seamlessly, unconsciously hit that app on your smartphone does it again. There you are, mindlessly staring at your Facebook feed, when – Bam!
“North Korea nuked Russia??”
“Obama, in his last move of his presidency is granting clemency to all violent criminals!?”
“Trump eats little children??!”
Welcome to the world of fake news.
The Evolution of the Hoax
Fake news may seem like a modern day epidemic, but it’s really nothing new at all. If you remember back to your high school American History class, you might recall a certain late 19th century rivalry between two newspaper moguls – Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst; Does the term “yellow journalism” ring a bell? Both Pulitzer and Hearst ran New York City newspapers in the late 1800’s and an intense battle to emerge the reigning city paper ensued. Both consistently published outrageous claims, with the intent of selling more papers than the other – and fabrication of facts and stories altogether became the de facto way to outsell the other.
Fast forward to our hyperconnected times; Modern yellow journalism, or fake news has taken on a life of its own, making its way around the internet since the earliest days of chat rooms. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, reports that started out life as posts shared among oddball members of hoax-sharing groups sometimes migrated off their chats, finding their way into the mainstream press. Notably, reports of a TWA flight that was shot down by the US navy made rounds on the nightly news and after 9/11, country-wide reports swirled regarding an Al Qaeda-run telemarketing campaign, aimed at disrupting people’s dinner time. Fakes for sure, but, like a bad fungal infection, they spread fast, capturing the imagination of the American public in the process.
And fake news can have very-not-fake consequences. In 2014, fake reports propelled a huge upsurge in Ebola fears after a fabricated Texas family was supposedly displaying the virus. The wholly unsubstantiated reports and the panic they bred led to one volunteer nurses who had been helping victims in Africa to be forced into quarantine without justification (her test results were negative) and got her kicked out of her apartment; her partner was asked to leave nursing school because he had been exposed to her. This is all before December’s Pizzagate incident, which culminated with the shooting in DC’s Cosmo Ping Pong pizza shop by an inflamed local. Cosmo’s had been the subject of a series of fake news reports, proclaiming it as front for a Clinton-sponsored child trafficking ring. The reports were determined to be completly unfounded and no one was hurt in the shooting, but it stands as a stark reminder that fake news has real reverberations.
Social Media ups the Ante
By now, the proliferation and effects of fake news have reached epic proportions, thanks to social media and our culture of sharing. As these fake reports pick up traction, they begin to go viral – the more shares a post gets, the more its shared again, as people’s cognitive bias whispers unwittingly in their ear that if something’s got 670000 reposts, it must be verified; and more importantly, they MUST be part of the sharing mass. Thus, social media becomes the ultimate breeding ground for these pseudo-reports. As Professor Shyam Sundar said in a recent Newsweek article “Today, in the age of social media, we receive news not only via email, but also on a variety of other online platforms. Traditional gatekeepers (classical news sources such as newspapers and their journalists) have been cast aside; politicians and celebrities have direct access to millions of followers. If they fall for fake news, any hoax can go viral, spreading via social media to millions without proper vetting and fact-checking.”
Why do we Share Stuff we Like?
It’s important to understand what goes into sharing posts. We don’t share less-than-true posts because we all happen to be gullible clods or out of evil political motivations. Understadibly, we reshare things that align with our personal convictions; this is called confirmation bias, and according to studies, to discount a potential lie once we have heard it, even when we know that it may be untrue, is a gargantuan task. And anyone, regardless of personal association, political or otherwise, can fall prey to this kind of thinking. Moreover, many people feel that the traditional means of information dissemination has failed them. The hard truth is that we trust and reshare what our friends post more than we trust “experts” because so often the experts themselves have been exposed as purveyors of not-exactly-truthfulness. We share because it builds connections to other likeminded people and to give voice to what some might view as the unheard masses. Sometimes though, we end up using our hearts over our heads and our sharing practices become less than judicious.
Fake news’s ground zero, Facebook has long held there is little connection between the fake news that runs rampant on the site and any political or social movements. But they have changed their tune, laying out a new plan to put an end to the insanity. According to a statement posted on their company blog “We will be collaborating with news organizations to develop products, learning from journalists about ways we can be a better partner, and working with publishers and educators on how we can equip people with the knowledge they need to be informed readers in the digital age.” This is good news, considering that new studies show that almost 50 percent of adults get their news from the platform (It’s true; don’t believe us? Go look it up yourself).
Meanwhile, there are some precautions you can take to keep from falling into the same mind trap:
- Get your news from known and trusted news sources;
- Use social media with a healthy dose of skepticism;
- Ensure that there are numerous outlets reporting on incidents, not just one or a few unknowns.
- If you have a question regarding a report and want to verify its source, you can check it out on Professor Melissa Zimdars’ list of potentially* rogue news sources.
- Stay far away from all clickbait, it’s just another, slightly more obvious manifestation of the same problem.
As the old adage goes “ If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is”. Let’s extend its application a bit; If something seems too outrageous, then it should be verified before you share/believe it. You don’t want to be one of the purveyors of the fake news phenomenon — so before you share, verify. Then, and only then, should you click that “share” button, sending it off to all your connections.
*We say “potentially” as we havent checked out each source listed ourselves and thus cannot say that every entity listed there is entirely fake. It’s up to you to do your own research and decide on which to rely.