You wake up, reach for your phone or computer, open your browser and begin scrolling through your Facebook news feed. You notice that a series of actions that have become so ordinary and routine have morphed into a powerful weapon. Social media platforms created with the intention of connecting friends have transformed into global media outlets with the power to influence the population. The news feed, once flooded with photos and whimsical status updates, has evolved into a platform that is much more educational — the content on your Facebook news feed has upgraded from embarrassing photos to news articles. It’s become everyone’s favorite thing to do: share that interesting article you read from the New York Times, start a conversation, and get some likes. The circulation of news on the site has increased over the years. In 2013, Facebook introduced its Trending Topics column and encouraged the use of hashtags, which users could follow to see updated news stories. Today, nearly half of all Americans use Facebook as their primary source of news; the social platform has essentially become a daily pseudo-newspaper by aggregating top news stories. Despite the increase in circulation, journalists worry as social media has led to the rise of fake news, and unknown publications hold the same weight of influence as news from verified sources.
This past year, social media has been both problematic and reassuring. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election win, after a campaign fueled by hate, it was comforting to see my friends posting hopeful messages of standing in solidarity with those social groups Trump and his supporters targeted. I saw a strong surge of conviction among my peers with Facebook events advertising protests, demonstrations, and meetings where everyone could exercise their freedom of speech and pledge to resist the president elect. People united and shared information about how to take action and offer support to organizations like Planned Parenthood. But I also saw division. Almost instantly after Trump’s win, posts proclaiming support for the president-elect surfaced, and each status ended with “delete me as a friend if you don’t like it.” Similarly, those opposed to the president elect would post status updates proclaiming “Going through my friends list and purging all Trump supporters.” While rival views played out on social media, the creators of social media platforms had to question their own roles in this mess.
It was a rough election season, and it was one plagued with fake news. Facebook, Google and Twitter immediately faced criticism for the epidemic. The sites were attacked for allowing the proliferation of conspiracy theories, rather than stories based on fact. Likewise, social media sites were blamed for creating filter bubbles among users. In the hyper-partisan atmosphere fake news saw its rise through purposefully misleading websites for the sole goal of making profit, and misinformed social media posts. According to PolitiFact “In 2016, the prevalence of political fact abuse — promulgated by the words of two polarizing presidential candidates and their passionate supporters — gave rise to a spreading of fake news with unprecedented impunity.” Following the election, when a man from Texas posted a photo on Twitter, claiming that the bus in the photo was carrying paid protesters, the post exploded; it was shared 16,000 times on Twitter and 350,000 times on Facebook. The single photo made waves over several conservative websites and spread through Reddit like wildfire. Even after mainstream news outlets and fact checking websites, like Snopes, debunked the story, the post continued to traverse through the blogosphere with so much power that even the president elect himself tweeted about his anger over these paid protesters.
In response to fake news, Facebook and Google both pledged to remove fake news headlines from their advertising services. Both Google and Facebook have enormous power in distributing information to Americans, and yet both sites gave prominence to fake news stories in the past year. The biggest fake news story in 2016 was an article alleging President Obama wanted to ban the recitation of the the Pledge of Allegiance in schools–this story was shared 2.1 million times. Some of the other notable fake headlines were the murder-suicide of a former FBI agent suspected in the Hillary Clinton email leaks, and #Pizzagate — which created its own major problem. On December 4th, 2016, Edgar Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong with a shotgun. He wanted to investigate the pizza restaurant after the flood of rumors surrounding John Podesta’s emails. Conspiracy theorists claimed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party were running a child sex trafficking ring in the back room of Comet Ping Pong, while Welch’s plan was to free the children. He fired three shots inside the D.C restaurant and then began to search the back area.
Besides banning fake news from their advertising services to make misleading websites more difficult to find, Facebook and Google are responding to public pressure by developing new tools to combat fake news. Google has launched a set of plugins to check the legitimacy of news sources, while Facebook is allegedly working on a patent for a tool that would allow users to report fake stories. But the problem will still persist. In this age, fact checking is not enough and sensationalism triumphs over fact. With so many different news outlets, opinions, and stories, many rely on social media to make sense of it all. Psychologically, humans are predisposed to seek out stories that confirm their beliefs, and in an age where computer algorithms can perfectly curate your news feed or search engine based on your history of likes, comments, and clicks, it’s hard to not find what you want to hear in order to reinforce your ideas. A journalist for Politico decided to test the waters and emulate the Twitter news feed for Michael Flynn Jr. He vowed to only read fake news for two weeks and ignore mainstream media. He learned that the majority of fake news “demonized” Hillary Clinton, he also learned that the believers of fake news had created a terrifying filter bubble for themselves. For example, after the Comet Ping Pong story was cited as false, conspiracy theorists were not buying the claims. Rather, they use the ‘fake news’ label to attack mainstream media and subject publications like the New York Times or Washington Post to ridicule. Conspiracy theory followers on Twitter believe that when trusted publications cover a story like #Pizzagate and then proceed to move on, they are simply acting like liberal agents covering up for Democratic politicians. Hence, on the internet, #Pizzagate is still a widely believed phenomenon. Politico’s journalist concluded that mainstream news barely ever appeared on their news feed, and when it did it was ignored or labeled false and viewed as a way to manipulate the public and silence “dissenters”.
FiveThirtyEight recently published an article analyzing the history of news and the power structures that control it. The article takes aim at fake news and offers ways to tackle the outbreak we witnessed in 2016. While all the criticism surrounding fake news has been flung at social media companies, we should also be pointing fingers at the readers who share misleading information. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in which they concluded that 23% of people shared a fake news story and 14% shared a false story with the knowledge it was not true. So the truth is, people don’t seem to care about what they share, and the focus seems to be on controversy and entertainment. Considering that this past election season was more focused on the antics of candidates rather than actual policies and how they would affect Americans, the appetite for sensationalized news isn’t hard to fathom. While the media strives to hold politicians accountable, it should also hold itself accountable and conduct original research for news reports rather than simply aggregating stories. Furthermore, the focus should shift from the dramatic and ground itself in pursuit of the truth. Social media platforms and tech companies should push fact checking and continue to ban fake content, but should also be transparent and show how these tools work and are implemented in order to build trust among the public and avoid being labeled partisan. Finally, readers should take responsibility. Scroll through your newsfeed; do not delete those friends who have opposing views; and if you see them or anyone posting reports from fake sources or articles containing misleading information, figure out how to confront them and educate. Blocking friends does not solve the problem, and clicking on fake news sites just feeds the fire by creating more stories just for viral content.
So, is social media to blame? With the rise of bots on Twitter, fake accounts programmed with a specific agenda, and the “echo chamber” environment Facebook creates, we must really look to ourselves and the people we follow in order to take responsibility. While Mark Zuckerberg has relentlessly defended Facebook since the election we cannot forget the outlet the social media platform provided for fake news to easily travel through. The internet in general encourages the exercise of free speech and ubiquitous accessibility of information, and even though Twitter and Facebook stick to the idea that their sites expose users to a wide array of opinions, it’s hard to accept the stance when a lot of those ideas are lies. Disseminating information and assuming the public will be able to distinguish right from wrong is irresponsible — but then again, we live in a world where the president-elect bullies everyone and anyone — specifically the press — who has opposing views. His countless attacks on Twitter gives others an excuse to write off the media and surround themselves solely with those who can echo the same opinions. Misinformation has been used as a weapon; it puts the integrity of journalism at risk, blinds our ability to hold those in power accountable, and leaves the public in a never ending cycle of fight or flight mode. Social media is also a weapon, but one we should use for positive change, to diligently research stories, check their sources, and educate our peers. We need to support journalists who do strive for the truth and utilize social media to mobilize for important causes, because in the end, knowledge — not social media — is power, and you are the only one in control of that.