Answer this honestly, Have you ever read an article headline on social media and clicked ‘like’ or shared the post without digesting the entire article and thinking critically about its contents. And do the articles and posts you share on social media support your initial views or challenge them?
The fake news that’s infecting our screens
The way kiwis digest and consume news has revolutionised over the last 20 years. Since the inception of the internet, kiwis are flocking to social media as their first choice to access the latest in news, sport, and entertainment.
It’s our craving for quick reads and tabloid-style sensationalism that makes social media the platform of choice for manipulative narrators to package hidden agendas, propaganda and half truths into a neatly wrapped parcel in the guise of a legitimate news headline.
Our move away from more-traditional mainstream news outlets, which had some ethical standards, to consumption of social newsfeeds has weakened mainstream media, forcing its players to compete for attention by offering up catnip clickbait headlines of their own to stoke the fires of rage of their intended targets.
Bear in mind, fake news is not a new concept – it’s been around long before social media, let alone the invention of the high bike. Modern newspapers came to the scene in the early 19th century, touting scoops and exposés, but also fake stories to increase circulation. How can we forget The New York Sun’s “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835 which claimed that there was an alien civilisation on the moon. Although completely fabricated, it helped establish the Sun as a leading, profitable newspaper for years to come.
True fact is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by people like you and me. For every fact there is a counter-fact. And what’s confusing for us as readers, is they are almost indistinguishable, making it difficult to determine what’s real and what isn’t.
Part of the problem, is that unlike books and reputable news agencies such as Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Bloomberg, information on social media doesn’t have to be vetted, investigated, or confirmed in order to spread, which this leads to the dissemination of misinformation and fake news. And like wildfire, it spreads destruction in its wake.
Why spread fake news? ‘Fake News’ is designed to provoke extremist sentiment, influence political processes, or seed distrust and confusion in society. It’s also created to make money. The internet is a powerhouse for income generation – and popular news headlines means big dollars. The more clicks on a page, the more the advertising on the page is seen. The more it is seen, the more revenue for the page’s administrators – it isn’t even necessary for the reader to click on the ad.
So how do we spot fake news? Compared to real news, fake news tends to include information that is more surprising, upsetting or geared to trigger anger or anxiety. Any information that fits that (and a lot of coronavirus news can) should be double checked. Other cues that should raise suspicion include unknown sources, unusual numbers of endorsements (or likes) and memes that focus on partisan topics.
How Fake News infects our freedom of speech
Most of our engagement on social media align with our beliefs, interests, and hobbies. We may ‘like’ a dog post or group because we own a dog. And we may share and comment on posts that support our political views. Our activity on social media may seem relatively innocuous and safe, but what we sometimes forget is that we are creating an online bubble that inhibits our ability to think critically and challenge our own thoughts and beliefs. The growing proliferation of this type of activity can be referred to as an echo chamber.
An echo chamber is an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints. Latching onto one way thinking, they hear arguments and evidence only from their side of the spectrum. They’re never exposed to the other side’s views. An echo chamber leads its members to distrust everybody on the outside of that chamber.
As a result, I see more and more people closing their minds to other perspectives and differing ideas because of their dogmatic belief and predisposition that their way of understanding is correct. I don’t blame them. Just about any belief that we subscribe to can be ‘validated’ on the internet. You can find hundreds, if not thousands of articles that both support and dismiss the the benefits of a Vegan, Paleo, and Vegetarian diet.
“If a lie is only printed often enough, it becomes a quasi-truth, and if such a truth is repeated often enough, it becomes an article of belief, a dogma, and men will die for it.” — Isa Blagden
I have seen this behaviour repeatedly on political and pandemic related posts in New Zealand. People getting defensive of their political views, and becoming intolerant of anyone else who may have an alternative view.
Why, because we are only human
As mentioned above, fake news is nothing new. It’s been poisoning our social newsfeeds for years. So why is it that so many of us intelligent, sensible, and capable humans fall for it?
There are many factors that play into our engagement with fake news, and predisposition to dismiss opposing views. Much of it has to do with cultural cognition. People who share untrue stories may identify strongly with a partisan position or narrative—the fake news reflects how they see both themselves and the world. When someone shares a piece of political fake news, it is an act of confirmation biases, favouring information that confirms our existing beliefs in an attempt to strengthen their existing point of view.
Take for example, political debates. If you browse through the comments section on any liberal or conservative post, you’ll see it riddled with ‘fights’. Consider that Political fights on social media are not an objective debate, but rather a set of heated emotional arguments that get to the very core of what people believe in and how they see their place in the future of their country.
When people are engaging in this online debates, they are not interested in hearing counterpoints. They see this as a personal attack on their identity. And after residing in their insular beliefs that are endorsed and validated by other members of the echo chamber, its easy to understand why such people react so emotionally when someone with opposing views attempts to tear down foundation blocks that their online community is built on.
So when you feel compelled to dispel fake news on social media, remember you are not dealing with the rational mind. It may sound counterintuitive, especially given we are taught to focus on the problem and not the person when it comes to conflict resolution. But you need to engage with the human first. Im talking about empathy, perspective taking, and connectivity.
Try to dig deeper than than the comment. Probe a little further to understand not what they have said, but why they have said it. For example, if a friend shares misinformation about the safety of vaccines, they are likely doing so because they are worried about the health of their children. Even if the science on vaccines shows the opposite of what the post says, the poster’s “underlying message is I’m a good parent,” says Emily Thorson, a political scientist at Boston College. “Affirm what they want [you] to affirm”—that they care about their kids—“and let that be true, along with the fact being wrong
When fake news has very real consequences
On Sunday, December 4, 2016, a shooting incident occurred at a pizza shop in Washington D.C . A man brought a rifle into the shop and began shooting. Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the suspect was arrested, but the motive for this crime and the circumstances that triggered it were shocking.
The pizza shop, called Comet Ping Pong, had become embroiled in a strange situation where false tweets widely spread on the net claiming that this pizza shop was the base for a pedophile sex ring involving Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her party members.
A number of anonymous bulletin board then focused their attention solely on the pizza shop. This escalated into social media posts claiming that this shop was the site of child sex trafficking. Even after Ms. Clinton’s defeat the following day, the tweets did not subside, and instead continued to expand.
As the number of people who believed in the “pizzagate” conspiracy grew, and the threats directed at the pizza shop increased, the shops in the neighborhood also became involved. The operators of the pizza shop and surrounding businesses said they became frightened by more and more confrontations with people who believed the fake news.
Although social media subsequently banned posts related to pizzagate, the threats did not stop, culminating in the appearance of a 28-year-old man from North Carolina, who showed up at the shop with a rifle to do his own “investigation.” According to a New York Times interview with the suspect after his capture, he was a soft-spoken, polite man who intended to rescue the children trapped in the shop.
Although no one was hurt, a real shooting being caused by fake news is serious. The people who believe the fake news, like the suspect in this incident, are often people who appear to be perfectly ordinary.
What can we do about it?
There is always a fight between ‘truth’ and free speech. But because the internet is not yet in a position to regulate and filter fabricated news from true fact, it will continue to dominate. So what can we do to minimise the impact of fake news and
Take responsibility for what you communicate to others, a harmless two second act of sharing or liking a post can have significant impacts on
Since the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears a responsibility for the publics sense of truth. If we are serious about seeking facts, we MUST work to verify our sources, to dismiss fake news, and to to follow reporters you have reason to trust, not those who validate your opinion. .
As humans, we do not see the minds that we hurt when we publish falsehood, but that does not mean we are doing no harm. Like driving a car, we may not see the other driver, but we know not to run into them, Likewise, although we may not see the other person in front of his or her computer, we have a shared responsibility for what he or she is reading. If we can avoid doing violence to the minds of the unseen others on the internet, others will learn to do the same. Then perhaps, our newsfeeds, will cease to look like one tyrannic car crash
Challenge stereotype. Has the judgements been made ab out a specific group of people or culture? Are these people being misrepresented?
Adopt a critical-thinking mindset. Look at the view points being represented. Does voices are heard, who do we not hear from, and why would people have opposing views.
Question that authors intention – why do you think the author has chosen to write about this story? And do you think the author is trying to change your opinion?
To minimise narrow thinking and the mass infection of fake news on our social media, we must not accept that an erroneous truth only applies to others. It applies to everyone – you and me.
Accept that we are responsible for our beliefs. We cannot and should not lay blame on social media and narratives with hidden agendas. We must put effort in how we access, interpret, and disseminate our social media footprint. We must think critically about the information we are being exposed to in order to identify when it’s distorting our worldview.
Before we use information as the basis for initiating a Facebook war with someone who has an opposing view, verify your facts, dig deeper to understand not what they have said but why they have said it. Consider the impact of what you’re saying and its wider implications.
Truth is a precarious thing, not because it doesn’t objectively exist, but because the incentives to warp it can be so strong. It’s up to each of us to seek it out.