Social media’s impact on the fake news phenomenon

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”. Surely not? Well, this headline was one of the top trending stories during the divisive and hard-fought US election of 2016, despite there being no truth to it whatsoever. Fake news has taken mainstream media outlets by storm and most are struggling to cope. But where did this swarm of falsehood come from? Veles in central Macedonia is credited with being the spiritual home of fake news. Whilst fabrication, false information and straight out lies have always existed in society and the media. The teenagers in this city found a unique relationship between social media algorithms and sensationalist stories especially centred around the US election.

The industry began with these teenagers plagiarising right wing pro trump articles but changing their titles. [1] Due to the stories circulating on social media like wildfire, the amount of people joining what is now a lucrative business in Veles, grew and grew. Of the known fake news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favouring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favouring Hilary Clinton were shared 8 million times. Shockingly, over half of the Americans who were exposed to these fake news stories believed them. [2].

Fake news has become a serious issue in the states with ‘real world’ consequences. ‘Pizzagate’ is the story that a paedophilia ring involving people at the highest levels of the Democrat Party was operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant. Despite there being no victims or physical evidence, this story took off on 4chan, the social media site. The story was completely fictitious. Yet, the hashtag ‘pizzagate’ trended number one on twitter and over a million messages using the hashtag were tweeted in November 2016 alone.  

The statistic that over half of the Americans believed the fake news they were exposed to is extremely dangerous. [3] This may have been why Edgar Maddison Welch decided to open fire with a rifle at Comet Ping Pong, the pizza restaurant at the centre of the alleged paedophilia ring. Welch said he was there to “self-investigate” the theory. Luckily, no one was injured or killed, and the gunman was sentenced to four years in prison.

The internet and what people read is such a powerful tool, enough to send a man to shoot up a restaurant, but how? False stories like ‘pizzagate’ can spread quickly throughout specific groups via social media sites and search engines. This is due to companies using vast algorithms to tailor content to the individual. This is what Eli Pariser, the chief executive of Upworthy, calls the filter bubble. In his book with the same title, he discusses how these algorithms allow people to see a distorted view of the world. Due to the complexity of these systems, people are no longer exposed to ideas that challenge their belief system. Thus, in the absence of other points of view, fake news can thrive. This is a leading factor as to why Edgar Maddison Welch had no idea the story of ‘pizzagate’ was bogus.

Eric Schmidt from Google said, “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”. [4] Google uses up to 57 different signals such as the type of computer you are using and your location at the time of browsing to personalise the content you see. [5] Thus, for Trump supporters at the time of the US election, their social media feeds will have likely been littered with pro-Trump and anti-Clinton articles and posts.

Without doubt, the connoisseur of fake news seems to be the US president Donald Trump. In fact, he once said in an interview that he invented the word. [6] His relationship with the media is one so fraught, it is unlikely we will see something like this again. President Trump often refers to news or print media outlets as ‘fake news’. However, the issue is that many of these so called fake news outlets are in fact telling the truth. He targets particular news stations, ones who may favour the Democrats or those who are bipartisan. Trump has in a way clouded the definition of fake news as for him it has become a propaganda tool. Trump’s bombardment of media outlets is not nationally exclusive either. The BBC has been accused by the deputy assistant to Donald Trump and the president himself of being one of these ‘fake news’ outlets. [7] In a heated exchange on Newsnight, presenter Evan Davis as well as the BBC were accused multiple times of being ‘fake news’ by the Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka. Davis replied by saying a lot of the time these accusations are made to media outlets that are “asking questions you do not like”.

“The term fake news is absolutely toxic because it muddles the debate and public discourse about accuracy and factuality in information”. – Anna Belkina, Deputy editor-in-chief at Russia Today. [8]

Through systematic targeting certain outlets of being false in the information they output; Trump has managed to cause great division in the media. It means that Americans have been split by channels and the way they consume news since the Trump presidency. Trump has almost created his own filter bubble.

Fake news is not exclusive to politics either. During the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, NBC anchor Katie Couric made an error when introducing the Dutch Olympic team. She stated that the Dutch use the canals as “a mode of transportation” when they freeze over in the winter. Social media reacted quickly calling out her “fake news”. The Dutch canals, and she specifically references Amsterdam, do not freeze over regularly at all. Even when they do they are not used as a transportation method. Like the rest of the western world; cars, bikes and public transport are readily available. [9] The Dutch success in speed skating has no direct correlation to the canals freezing over. Couric quickly apologised, however in the age of instantaneous responses the damage had already been done.    

Whilst most false information is fact checked and called out quickly on social media, filter bubbles have a huge role to play. Thus, whilst social media is very much a catalyst for stories false or not to spread, it can debunk falsehood just as swiftly.  While American politicians may further use the terms as a form of political spin to deflect difficult questions. Perhaps more shocking is when fake news stories are not related to politics at all. This could call into question the integrity and intelligence of any mainstream media channel. Fake news, like a disease, is infecting the social and mainstream media in one way or another and is here to stay until an antidote is found. A new president in 2020 perhaps…

By Jasper Willems

References

[1] Kirby, E. (2016). The city getting rich from fake news. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-38168281.

[2] Allcott, Hunt and Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of Economic Perspectives. 31 (2), p211-236.

[3] BBC Trending (2016) The saga of ‘Pizzagate’: The fake story that shows how conspiracy theories spread. Available http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-38156985.

[4] Pariser, E (2012). The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. London: Penguin Books. p111-117.

[5] Pariser, E. (2011). Beware of the online filter bubble. Available: https://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.

[6] Salmon, N. (2017) Donald Trump takes credit for inventing the word ‘fake’. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-takes-credit-for-inventing-the-word-fake-a7989221.html.

[7] Newsnight. (2017) Donald Trump aide accuses BBC of ‘fake news’. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/video_and_audio/headlines/39000118/donald-trump-aide-accuses-bbc-of-fake-news.

[8] BBC World Debate (2018). The Fake News Challenge to Politics. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09pz868.

[9] Boren, C. (2018). NBC’s Katie Couric is in hot water with the Dutch, who really don’t skate everywhere. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2018/02/11/nbcs-katie-couric-is-in-hot-water-with-the-dutch-who-really-dont-skate-everywhere/?utm_term=.3218e1eb5028.

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