Misinformation on the Net

“Fake news!”

You’ve heard that before, right?

I was inspired by the second point on the article we read this past week (https://webfoundation.org/2017/03/web-turns-28-letter/) to examine the causes, effects, and power of “fake news”.

The spread of misinformation on the internet has created a ridiculously frustrating paradigm in American political discourse: we don’t know what’s true. To be fair, the American people were never truly able verify the claims made by TV news anchors on their own (in the days before the web), but the news networks were recognized and credulous sources to begin with. Often, TV news had to show raw video or play audio to rile people up with evidence. The proliferation and popularity of the internet has shifted everything about news, perhaps including the very meaning of the word. The first offender is social media – websites like Facebook create an echo chamber, where people can choose to hear no opinions but those they agree with. Targeted advertising allows only videos, news sources, and products that align with your political views to show up on your news feed. Suddenly, you find yourself in a world where your opinion is the only opinion, and it doesn’t seem too extreme to lean a little more towards the extreme on your side of the political spectrum.

The second offender is one we know and love: search engines. Websites like Google can curate search results, showing you things you want to see, rather than things you need to see.

But the biggest offender of all is the “news.” There’s money in misinformation; if I start a completely fabricated “news” website, tell people what they want to hear, and monetize it…I’ll make a lot of money. People will share my articles, and the others in their echo chamber will like them. Simple as that. For example, check out this website (scroll down once you’re on it): http://thelastlineofdefense.org/

The Last Line of Defense is literally fake news. They write that they’re “satirical” in the fine print, but that doesn’t matter – their individual articles get shared around, monetized, and misinformation spreads. For example, one of their articles, tastefully titled “WHOA! Hillary Caught On Hot Mic Trashing Beyonce’ With RACIAL SLURS!” has over 200,000 shares to social media. I would bargain a vast majority of those did not share it for the “satire”. All of the 200+ comments seem to be taking the article very seriously. And there you have it – a slightly more misinformed public, one article at a time. This demonstrates a big part of the issue of fake news: the internet allows anything to go viral. One person can write a fake article, and the next day a million people have read it. How many do you think will fact-check it?

The problem becomes even more complicated when accusations of “fake news” are directed at credible news sources. Then, the people start thinking: who can I trust? What’s real? How do I know?

And it simply becomes easier to listen to the opinions we want to hear, rather than going out into the field to see the truth with our own eyes.

My questions for you all are: how do we ensure the news we’re reading is real? How do we stop the proliferation of existing fake news? How to we break free from our echo chambers? How can we, as individuals, help the fight against the creation of new fake news? Could big companies like Facebook and Google be doing more? How? Would it infringe on free speech for the government to attempt to curtail fake news? I look forward to hearing from you all, and thank you so much for reading!

2 Comments »

  1. Jim Waldo

    September 20, 2017 @ 1:02 am

    1

    There are a lot of people wondering what to do with fake news and the different echo chambers and bubbles. It is interesting to see what the solutions looks like, especially in a country that has enshrined freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the way that the U.S. has.

    Of course, this isn’t really all that new. If you look at the history of “yellow” journalism at the beginning of the 20th century, there were some pretty different views of what the world was like and what was happening. This was always somewhat true (if you look at some of the newspaper articles around the time of the Civil War– yikes). But during the first part of the 20th century, there were suddenly papers that had national reach and could therefore influence a lot more people. Maybe we are just going through the same sort of stage.

  2. Mike Smith

    September 21, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    2

    Powerful post, Jake. I also think it is easier for people to get outraged and then share that outrage than to be skeptical and then fact-check. Our social media platforms certainly make the former easier than the latter.

    Your questions are great and to them I would add the questions that are often being asked. Do we want to empower some piece of our government or some set of corporations to be those determining what is true and worthwhile? Hard question. I personally think that the answer needs to come less from a central authority and more from changing the way that we each operate and interact. However, that’s not easy.

    I too can’t wait to hear what others think!

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