Whether it is from news headlines, comedy sketches, word-of-mouth, or President Trump’s Twitter account, the term fake news seems to be everywhere lately. Although it has been a trending topic, many Americans do not understand what exactly fake news is, and in effect, they fall victim to believing false statements and sharing false information. False statements of fact are published all over the web including within news articles and websites, social media posts and advertisements. This story will take a critical, holistic view of this digital issue.
In order to gain a holistic understanding of this issue, I will discuss various dimensions of fake news. These dimensions will include the history of fake news, the Internet’s contribution, the 2016 election, regulations, and the potential consequences of prolonged exposure to fake news. I will then share strategies to combat fake news. This project will refer to the term ‘fake news’ as news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers. In other words, my definition will focus on intentionally fabricated news meant to manipulate an audience. Specifically, I will focus on the political implications of false news and the future consequences that it may impend on American politics and individuals as a whole.
Fake News is Nothing New
Recognizing the History
Although the discussion of fake news has become especially prominent recently, which is mostly due to the 2016 presidential election, it is critical to recognize that there is a long, prior history of fake news. Professor and librarian, Joanna M. Burkhardt, raises awareness as to how one can identify and avoid fake news. “The origins of fake news dates back to before the printing press...The ability to have an impact on what people know is an asset that has been prized for centuries” (Burkhardt, 2017, p. 5). In other words, fake news is nothing new, rather, it has been around since people have started communicating with one another. Being able to not only manipulate what people know about a topic, but also how they should feel about the topic can be incredibly advantageous. This is why this ability has been ‘prized for centuries.’ Research Associates and Economics Professors, Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, dissect the impact that social media and fake news played in the 2016 presidential election. They begin their paper by describing the market for fake news. “American democracy has been repeatedly buffeted by changes in media technology” (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017, p. 211). These media technology progressions ranging from newspapers, to the telegraph, to cinema, and so on, all provided more opportunities and platforms for individuals to publicize and share information. To put it simply, with every revolutionary media technology came a moral panic. On that account, the panic of fake news and information is nothing new. People have been utilizing the ability to persuade and manipulate others for centuries. Future advances in digital technology will also increase the amount of fake news. By being about to manipulate others with false information, one may be able to impact how others behave, and what others believe and feel. In effect, the distribution of fake news can be very powerful.
The Internet's Contribution
How the Internet Provides a Platform for All
Even though false stories have existed as long as communication, Internet communication technologies (ICTs) have expanded and transformed the way fake news is created and spread. ICTs and social media have provided platforms in which fake news can be accessed and spread in what seems to be infinite ways. It is critical to recognize that anyone can post just about anything using these platforms. In other words, just because a user has posted something online does not necessarily mean that the post consists of credible information. “Content can be relayed among users with no significant third-party filtering, fact-checking, or editorial judgement. An individual user with no track record or reputation can in some cases reach as many readers as FOX News, CNN, or The New York Times” (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017, p. 211). Taking this into consideration, the platforms that ICTs provide can be analyzed under a double-edged sword. On one hand, ICTs provide opportunities for an equal playing field in regard to freedom of speech and sharing information. However, on the other hand, these opportunities bring about the consequences of potential manipulation and sharing of false information to users. Burkhardt explored this concept further:
“The democratization in information allows everyone and anyone to participate and includes information from bad actors, biased viewpoints, ignorant or uninformed opinion- all coming at internet users with the velocity of a fire house. The glut of information is akin to having no information at all, as true information looks exactly like untrue, biased, and satirical information” (Burkhardt, 2017, p. 11).
This quotation is exceptionally powerful because it describes the threat and danger of fake news. As Burkhardt suggests, it has become increasingly difficult to tell true information apart from the false. In effect, individuals may behave or think differently after interpreting fake news as legitimate. An example of this can be seen in the 2016 election, which will be discussed in the following section.
Social media has provided people with platforms to create and share messages and information. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter provide unique affordances such as replicability, persistence, scalability, and searchability. In other words, these social sites automatically record and archive online expressions. The content posted can be duplicated, accessed through search, and have a potential for large visibility. These affordances have their benefits in regard to the individual, however, they also bring about consequences. Alvaro Figueira and Luciana Oliveira weighed in on the current state of fake news’ challenges and opportunities:
“On social networking websites, the reach and effects of information spread are however significantly amplified and occur at such a fast pace, that distorted, inaccurate or false information acquires a tremendous potential to cause real impacts, within minutes, for millions of users” (Figueria & Oliveira, 2017, p. 818).
This quotation reflects the consequences of such affordances. Figueria and Oliveira explain how the ‘amplified reach’ and ‘fast pace’ of information can impact ‘millions of users.’ These affordances are unique to social sites and provide more opportunities- and consequences- to how information is created and shared.
What's the Big Deal?
Analyzing the Impact of Fake News on the 2016 Election
As mentioned previously, the discussion of fake news has become especially relevant recently due to the 2016 presidential election. Research continues to investigate the impact that fake news contributed to President Trump’s win. American journalist, Adrian Chen, critiques the fake news fallacy:
“The stories were overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and the spread of whoppers like ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’ - hardly more believable than a Martian invasion- seemed to suggest that huge numbers of Trump supporters were being duped by online lies” (Chen, 2017, p. 80).
Stories like these heavily impacted the perceptions people held about the presidential candidates. Stories such as the one Chen mentioned not only reached huge numbers, but they were also believed to be true and shared by huge numbers of people. Not only were these stories pro-Trump, but they were also very anti-Clinton. PBS News Hour discusses how fake stories of Clinton selling weapons to ISIS were shared hundreds of thousands of times during the course of the election. “In those last three months of the election, compared to the six months before that, the engagement on the top twenty fake news stories was actually higher than what you saw for the real news” (PBS NewsHour, 2016). In other words, in the key, most vital weeks before voting, fake news articles were viewed more than actual, factual information about the candidates. In this case, the publication of fake news can impact something as large as the U.S. presidential election along with the reputation of the candidates. In the following NPR Podcast the host, Dave Davies, and journalist, Craig Silverman, discuss how false stories spread and why people believe them. (You can listen below):
Silverman explains in depth how these fake stories are being shared on the social media platform, Facebook. He states that at the core there are two factors that are at play: a human factor and an algorithmic factor. Silverman quoted:
“We love to hear things that confirm what we think and what we feel and what we already believe...And that’s where the kind of platform and algorithms come in. Which is that on Facebook, you know, the more you interact with certain types of content, the more its algorithms are going to feed you more of that content” (Davies & Silverman, 2017).
With the human factor of wanting to confirm our own beliefs and the algorithmic factor in Facebook which decides what content is displayed on someone’s timeline, a domino-effect occurs. If a user reacts to, comments on, or shares news that correlates with their own beliefs (whether that news is false or true), Facebook is designed to feed more of similar content. In effect, a domino-effect of fake news stories can display all over social media feeds. This makes it even more difficult for users to identify what is a relevant source of information. Not only does confirmation bias occur here, but the Facebook algorithm itself only feeds this bias.
Although fake news can bring about drastic consequences, regulations may be a bigger threat. Governmental interference can infringe upon the rights of free expression. Journalist and writer, Cathal Sheerin explains how governmental regulations and restrictions would negatively impact the media and anyone that contributes to public debate. This would also mean that public officials can dictate what is presented in the press. Sheerin argues, “...We must accept that lies and fabricated or inaccurate stories are the inevitable price that we have to pay to be able to enjoy our right to communicate freely” (Sheerin, 2017, p. 35). In other words, although fake news can be extremely problematic and impactful, it is one of the costs free expression. Regulations would restrict this freedom and be more costly. Journalists from The Washington Post, Flemming Rose and Jacob Mchangama, wrote an opinion piece as to how history has proven how dangerous it is to have the government regulate fake news:
“...It turned out to be far more important to explore the upside of the new technology than to protect against the potential downside. Facing the ups and downs of digital technology in the 21st century, we must heed this lesson” (Rose & Mchangama, 2017).
To put it simply, rather than focusing on the negatives that can result from technology, it is more effective to look at the benefits that technology provides. Fake news may be a negative consequence of such technologies, but the pros outweigh the cons tremendously.
Although fake news is being spread through various outlets and platforms, it is up to the individual to learn how to combat it. It is crucial that individuals become more media literate in order to identify and critique information. “...If critical alarmism leads to more skilled, critical thinking about the news that we report and consume (false or otherwise) then fake news will have inadvertently provided a useful service” (Sheerin, 2017, p. 35). To put it simply, the digital issue of fake news may make this type of skilled, critical thinking a necessity in regard to analyzing information.
Analyzing the credibility of a source does not necessarily have to be time-consuming. Below are various steps in which one can take to combat fake news:
- Be skeptical- what are the author's intentions?
- Fact-check information
- Look beyond your bubble- do not just seek information that confirms your own opinions
- Check the article's sources- do they cite credible sources?
- Read beyond the headlines- titles can be misleading
- Check the author's credibility
- Think before you retweet or share
- Pay attention to the domain and URL
Looking at the Bigger Picture
How Fake News Accelerates Political Polarization
The rise of fake news can, and is, leading to potentially negative consequences. The gif to the left displays a visual representation of the growth of political polarization over the years. According to Pew Research Center, political polarization is the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives. It can be argued that fake news has contributed, and continues to contribute, to this growing gap.
According to researchers Marina Azzimonti and Marcos Fernandes,
“...The recent increase in polarization could be associated with the radical shift in communication technology experienced in the last twenty years. Even though the internet expanded the access to raw information and allowed individuals to share it at a faster speed, it also provided a channel for partisan agents with extreme views to manipulate information via fake news, factually inaccurate facts, and/or slanted and misleading rhetoric” (Azzimonti & Fernandes, 2017, p. 23).
In short, communication technology may have been a driving force in the recent dramatic increase in political polarization. Technology has allowed users to not only “manipulate information”, but it has also brought about echo chambers. Echo chambers are metaphorical descriptions of situations in which information, ideas, and beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system.
The network graph to the left depicts tweets and retweets regarding various political issues. The figure suggests that echo chambers are present within social media. It can be argued that fake news only fuels these echo chambers. Individuals engaging in confirmation bias may share fake news in order to confirm their preexisting beliefs. In effect, users within these networks are exposed to this fake news. Hence, fake news can be a driving factor in the acceleration of political polarization.
This multi-media story has taken a holistic look at the digital issue of fake news. Although fake stories have been around for centuries, the Internet has provided more opportunities, and in effect consequences, in regard to publicizing and sharing information. The consequences of fake news is best seen within the example of the 2016 presidential election. This example shows how fake information is powerful enough to influence how people voted in the election. Even though fake news can have a tremendous negative impact on individuals and society as a whole, it may be worth the freedom of expression. This is why it is essential that individuals are media literate and know how to identify and avoid fake news. As the previous section has mentioned, fake news has a positive correlation with echo chambers and political polarization. Not only are these echo chambers created by individuals seeking confirmation bias, but social media algorithms factor in as well. In effect, the political polarization gap increases. Lastly, the issue of fake news will only grow due to advances in digital technology.
Looking at this in a macro sense, the digital world provides both opportunities and consequences on society as a whole. It is essential to recognize that ICTs are mere platforms. It is the individual’s responsibility to utilize the platform- whether that be for the ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There cannot be good without the bad. As opportunities are the products of these platform, as are consequences such as fake news.
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-236. doi:10.1257/jep.31.2.211
Azzimonti, M., & Fernandes, M. (2017). Social media networks, fake news, and polarization. Stony Brook University Department of Economics, 1-32.
Burkhardt, J.M. (2017). Combating fake news in the digital age. Library Technology Reports, 53(8), 5-33.
Chen, A. (2017). The fake-news fallacy. New Yorker, 93(26), 78-83.
Davies, D. (Host), & Silverman, C. (Guest). (2016, December 4). Fake news expert on how false stories spread and why people believe them. Fresh Air Podcast. Podcast retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/12/14/505547295/fake-news-expert-on-how-false-stories-spread-and-why-people-believe-them
Figueia, A., & Oliveira, L. (2017). The current state of fake news: challenges and opportunities. Procedia Computer Science, 121, 817- 825. doi:10.1016/j.procs.2017.11.106
[PBS NewsHour]. (2016, November 17). How online hoaxes and fake news played a role in the election [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tW-dg_IU3uM
Rose, F., & Mchangama, J. (2017, October 3). History proves how dangerous it is to have the government regulate fake news. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2017/10/03history-proves-how-dangerous-it-is-to-have-the-government-regulate-fake-news/?utm_term=.814589b9ae0b
Sheerin, C. (2017). Regulations are a bigger threat than fake news. Media Development, 64(2), 33-35.