Bad News on Social Media
In the aftermath of one of the most contentious and historic US Presidential elections in history, journalists and pundits have been scrambling to figure out why their predictions were so wrong. One factor that’s risen to the top of the blame pile? Fake news.
Fake news, broadly speaking, can fall into two camps. There’s legitimate satire like The Onion, which for two decades has been serving up “news” that can make the readers look a bit more critically at current events. The Onion-owned Clickhole, has also taken off in recent years. It’s mission? To parody the absurdity of clickbait driven sites like Upworthy and Buzzfeed. The New Yorker’s “Borowitz Report” is another popular pillar in the satirical news cannon. These publications are all “fake”, but they are still serving a critical function— using humor to highlight the follies and failings of culture, institutions, and those who participate in them.
On the other hand is fake news that is just flat out fake. In some cases, you could call it satire, but in those instances one would need to come to terms with the fact that many of those publications are not really funny at all. They’re meant to rile people up— to drive clicks, and by extension cash. Some of these stories are completely over the top, and a quick fact check would discredit them. The problem? We aren’t fact checking. And then there’s the problem of some sites that are bluntly hyperpartisan; that is, their stories, though potentially fact based, are so full of hyperbole that it borders on unethical.
We lead busy lives. Work, home, and errands; and in between it all we are plugged into our phones. On Facebook, where over 40% of adults claim to receive their news, we’re totally slammed with links to a bevy of articles. So, we get lazy. We skim the articles, see that they confirm our own political beliefs are biases, and then share it without any thought as to it’s legitimacy… and that’s a “best worst case” scenario. The kicker? When we share the news hoaxes as fact, without even reading them in the first place.
This posed a unique problem in the 2016 election. Buzzfeed News has reported that it all came to a head in the final three months of the election. Beginning in early 2016, Buzzfeed saw a steady decline in the number of shares top stories from legitimate news sites— from about 12 million in February to 7.3 million in December. The most viral fake news stories, however, had an opposite trajectory. Between the three month segments of May-July and August-November, the number of shares skyrocketed from about 3 million to 8.7 million. That means, on election day, fake news was outshared by real informative news by 1.3 million views.
But the satirical reliables like The Onion and “The Borowitz” report weren’t exactly what people were sharing. Hyperpartisan news outlets such as “Breitbart” on the right and “The Other 98%” on the left constantly churn out poorly reported and painfully biased reporting that skews the perception of millions of readers.
Now, many tech companies are reflecting on their roles in the US election. Maybe Facebook didn’t purposefully work for or against one candidate, but their platform did allow for the unchecked sharing of poorly sourced news stories. Mark Zuckerberg denies the algorithm swung the election one way or another, but critical pieces, like the aforementioned Buzzfeed piece, or this recent Scientific American article, hold otherwise. Google has actually gone so far to ban these sites from using its AdSense platform.
In the coming months, we’ll see a continued discussion about fake news, and tech’s responsibility crack down on unethical and poor journalistic work.