One of the most exciting things that came about with the turn of the century was the ability to communicate quickly and efficiently online. With the dawn of the internet, and particularly of Web 2.0, the way people communicated began to change, and with the invention of Facebook in the mid aughts, social networking websites like it became the norm in day-to-day communications. Recently however, Facebook and others like it have begun to stray from the “poking” and “wall posts of the past” and moving into a realm heretofore unchartered: the world of false news. Also called fake news, false news is an alarming new trend that has begun to sweep our social media landscapes. One can hardly scroll down their newsfeed without coming across a news source that is questionable, or even blatantly false. Fake news has become so prevalent to our society today, that Kucharski even goes so far as to compare it to an infectious disease (Kucharski, 2016).
The problem stems with a (mostly American) problem with trusting the news as a legitimate source. Most news corporations have taken a political stance (usually right or left, sometimes seemingly in outer space) and report from that viewpoint. As Bill Maher reported on his television show, “Real Time with Bill Maher”, Americans polled said that while 45% of them trusted Donald Trump, the president with the lowest approval ratings in modern American history (Harwood, 2017) and who has been caught in numerous troubling lies, to tell the truth, but a mere 42% said they trusted the news media to tell the public the truth (Maher, 2017). Thus, the turn of the general public to other sources of information rather than traditional news media, and that is where fake news is able to creep into the main stream and become a part of the social media landscape.
Unlike so-called fake news websites like The Onion, or television shows like The Colbert Report, the fake news prevalent in the media today has no satirical influence. Those satirical websites websites exist for the entertainment of many, as well as the confusion of others. Fake news used to be a joke, however, in the past couple of years, fake news has managed to find a spot in the world of online news. Facebook, or other social networking website users, can really be split into two groups of people: those who are “digitally literate” and those are not. In the past, when fake news was there for entertainment, the digitally literate were able to enjoy a good chuckle to themselves as those who were not, shared news stories from sources that were known to be satirical in nature. However, recently, with a new onslaught of news websites, many who truly to appear to be legitimate, it becomes more and more difficult to discern fake news from the real thing, and even those who would consider themselves to be digitally literate have difficulty distinguishing between the two.
While Mark Zuckerberg said claims that Facebook posts had the potential to influence the results of the 2016 election was a “pretty crazy idea” (Berghal, 2017) the world of online sharing has made the spread of fake news easy and unnervingly speedy, and because of this was able to shape people’s perceptions of the candidates at hand without ever expressing facts. Instead of statistics and real information, people voted with their feelings, because that was being targeted through social media. People click on things that upset or trigger them in some way, much more so than to valid information.
So, where do we go from here? Berghal lists a number of things that people can do to help avoid spreading fake news, which are outlined in his piece, quoting Washington Post Journalist Glen Kessler:
“1. authenticate the source (host),
2. check out the bona fides of the “contact us” page, and
3. vet the author.” (Berghal, 2017).
Following these steps seems like the logical thing to do, however, when people are quick to jump to conclusions and take action based on false news sources, they are unlikely to adequately vet their sources. Alternatively, he proposes technologies that block fake news websites from being shared on social media sites like Facebook. In general, though, I don’t believe we can stop the easily swayed from being easily swayed. Bill Maher proposes another alternative: that news corporations stop treating the news like a business endeavour, and regard it instead as a public service: something that their citizens need and deserve. Perhaps if everyone were to treat real news with the respect it deserves, it would be easy to distinguish the real from the ridiculous.
In conclusion, it looks as though people will be using social media as a platform for their news sources for a long time to come. While it is unlikely fake news sites will stop posting fake news, and even less likely that the majority of consumers will properly vet their sources before believing them or reposting, there is hope for the future of the news media. This lies with the news networks that bring the world reputable news, and hopefully these corporations will be able to step up to the plate and bring people the news that they deserve to hear.
Berghel, H. (2017). “Lies, Damn Lies, and Fake News”. Computer 5:2, 80-85. DOI: 10.1109/MC.2017.56
Harwood, J. (2017). “Trump to address nation saddled with record low approval rating: NBC/WSJ poll”. CNBC. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/26/trump-to-address-nation-sandbagged-by-record-low-approval-rating-nbcwsj-poll.html
Kucharski, A. (2016). “Post-truth: Study epidemiology of fake news”. Nature 500:525. DOI: 10.1038/540525a
Maher, B. (2017). “Alt-News”. Real Time with Bill Maher. https://www.facebook.com/Maher/videos/vb.62507427296/10154470954107297/?type=2&theater