“Fake news”- the latest buzzword. And a firm favourite of cultural trendsetter, President Donald Trump.
Fake news- the deliberate supply of false, or at least horribly twisted, news stories in an attempt to deceive and persuade the largest number of listeners- has been around in one form or another since news has existed (in other words, since people have existed). The moment some guy invented the wheel, some other guy probably started saying that he did. Only the name has changed through the ages. When word-of-mouth was the only communication, fake news was gossip, rumour, or slander. The advent of newspapers changed it to propaganda. And social media has dubbed it fake news. It’s nobody’s fault- humans are literally neurologically hard-wired to focus on the new and interesting, and this drive allows us to be easily taken in by scandal and sensationalism. In the golden age of newspaper, we developed certain tools to help us discern truth from fiction: cadres of professional journalists and editors and a newspaper’s reputation for honesty allowed us to find reputable sources for information.
The ease of the internet and social media has changed the landscape completely. There are few consequences for publishing fake claims, and anyone can start a blog (I stand as case in point). Whereas a newspaper needs a readership who believes them, a youtuber or blogger just needs people who click on them, which leads to yet another neolism-clickbait.
Where click-baiting focusses on the titling, on gathering interest, fake news focusses on the content. If I had wanted to write a clickbait title for this piece, I would have chosen: STRANDED AFRICAN BOY IN EUROPE RANTS AGAINST SOCIAL MEDIA! YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE POINT 3! If I had chosen to write fake news, I would say that fake news poses no problem at all.
Where your heart lies, there also lies your primary source of revenue. The reason why fake news and clickbaiting have become so prolific is that such articles and sites are funded almost exclusively by advertising. Buzzfeed, Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook all profit from us visiting them and seeing the advertisements. Our interaction with these sites is purely second nature- once you have clicked that juicy “10 STARS WHO HAVE GAINED WEIGHT OVER THE YEARS!” article, the site doesn’t care anymore. They’ve got you. While it is obviously in their interest for you to spend even more time and clicks on their site, this is nowhere near as important as that original visit. (This is why so many sites also force you to click next, next, next to go through whatever list you are reading: they count the clicks, not the time you spend reading.) The content is enitrely secondary- the platform for the advertising is all-important. Unlike a newspaper, they don’t need you to keep coming back- it’s perfectly fine as long as everybody comes once.
Now, fake news can be a lot more insidious than pure clickbaiting. Whereas a clickbait is at worst annoying, a fake news article can be purposefully misleading if not deceitful. This can range from taking quotes out of context to flat-out fabrications, such as Trump’s claim that a disaster had befallen Sweden. Fake news can be used purely for its shock value (people read it because “What? Really?”), to discredit opponents, to promote certain ideologies, or promote private agendas. I still find it partly humorous, partly deeply concerning that Trump and other similar politicians who ignore every claim by the opposition as fake news are in fact the ones spreading it most avidly. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” only worked because he and the Republicans were able to convince people that America is failing, even when the facts prove otherwise.
But as I mentioned before, “fake news” has existed forever, so why is it such a problem now? It’s our sources. Humans have two options for gathering information: 1. We get it directly from a trusted source or 2. We subconsciously assess it. Number one is obvious, but what do I mean by number 2? We subconsciously assess things all the time; our minds automatically connect statements to another. For example, everyone automatically connects Trump with wealth and success. When did you decide to believe that? My guess is never. We simply hear Trump, wealth, and success in connection with each other so often that they become a whole. Even if you know that many of his ventures have failed and that his wealth is often dramatically over-inflated, we still find it difficult to unlink these concepts. And so our opinion, our base belief about something, is often mostly subconsciously based. And this basing is tied to quantity, not quality. Advertisers have known this for ages: whether it’s a cleaning agent or a movie, we tend to go with the option we have heard about.
Now how does social media tie into this? First of all, we tend to believe our friends and those we like. If a friend shares or likes a link, our first impulse is normally to give them the benefit of the doubt. Secondly, we tend to assume that people we like have the same opinions as we do (Halo Effect). This is a perfect breeding ground for social media information dissemination. Age also play a huge factor here. More and more younger people are using social media, often before they have learned that not everything they read is true. The second relevant age group is surprisingly the “older generations”. These are people who have grown up mostly learning a healthy skepticism for hear-say and gossip, and often even newspapers, but have not had a chance to develop this same attitude toward social media sites. Moreover, they tend to be more trusting of what friends have shared. Obviously these are generalisations and the same points can apply to any individual, but the trends are easy to see: I’m sure everyone has a family member who has suddenly made a completely ridiculous claim based on something they read on Facebook. Even moreso than Facebook, Twitter has the capacity to mislead by personality, as there is a more direct connection to people we follow. In other words, it is easier to falsely believe something because our favourite celebrity has tweeted it.
Our subconscious assessment is also heavily influenced by social media. And this is where the automatic processes of social media are most dangerous. Let’s take a polarizing topic- euthanasia for example. Now, assume that you are firmly against it, not necessarily outspoken, but against. Two friends share two articles- one for, one against. Obviously, you only like or share the article against euthanasia. A similar article shows up in your feed, and you like that too. Now, Facebook has your preference logged. You start to see more of these articles, and the moment a friend shows a similar interest, her article is added to your feed. Seeing all of these articles decrying euthanasia, you begin to automatically assume that most people share your opinion. In other words, Facebook has become an echoing chamber- repeating your own opinion back to you over and over, while all evidence to the contrary does not reach you at all. Everything becomes polarized, and a middle-ground becomes more and more difficult to find. And fake news exploits this perfectly. One article gets liked or shared- you like it, your (now similarly thinking) friends like it, and becomes part of your groups’ belief, whether it is true or not. Let’s see how this practically plays out: Trump hears some outrageous story about Sweden, but believes it because it fits with his world-view. He shares this information. A lot of people believe it because they trust him. Others decide to look it up, but because no one writes an article about something not happening, all they find is the original piece of fake news, as well as all the spin-off pieces written by other people using the title as clickbait. And so, it requires a conscious effort to debunk this fake news, and by that time it has become so deeply entrenched in some groups’ social media that they are themselves skeptical of any evidence to the contrary.
This is a very dangerous state of affairs. But fortunately there is a relatively simple solution: use your head. In fact, let’s make a short checklist of how to deal with fake news:
1. Not everything you read is true.
2. Not everything your friends read is true.
3. Not everything you see your friends share is done consciously. (There are hackers, viruses, and sites that share automatically using your name).
4. A famous person does not necessarily have more trustworthy information than a normal person, and their information is in fact often heavily slanted based by their financial backing.
5. The “general” opinion is by no means the actual “general” opinion; check your facts.
6. And finally, MAKE SURE YOU CLICK THIS LINK, THE END WILL SHOCK YOU!