Social media can be very influential on society in both positive and negative ways. It gives people a way to stay in touch with people who live far away. It lets people share fun, interesting and informative content. It gives businesses a way to engage with customers.
One of the problems, however, is that anybody can share anything, including material that may not be accurate. In some cases, real harm is done when people spread inflammatory, unverified or outright false information. This can harm private individuals, as when someone is bullied online. It can also have a harmful impact on society as a whole. The 2016 presidential election, however, gave us many examples of this problem.
The Rise of Fake News Sites
Social media has made it very easy to spread information quickly. Because Facebook and Twitter timelines move so quickly, viewers don’t often verify what they’ve seen. A great deal of content is also spread through images and memes, which may or may not be based on valid information. Of course, many memes are created to be funny, cute or outrageous. Others, however, are intended to influence our thinking. Even links to real articles can be misleading. It’s safe to say that most people who see a headline and link never read the whole article.
Huffington Post recently published an interesting experiment that highlights this problem. In the article Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole, Matt Masur illustrated the problem of people sharing content that they didn’t bother to verify or, in many cases, even read. In the second paragraph, Masur reveals that the claim of the headline is false. Thousands of people, however, shared the article on social media without reading that far.
Of course, most fake news stories don’t tell you that they’re fake. There are now several categories of what might be called fake news sites. There are satirical sites that publish parodies of news stories. The best known of these is The Onion. However, in the last few years many other sites have appeared. Many don’t make it clear that they are satire sites, leading to confusion on the part of readers. As more and more satirical news sites crop up, it can be hard to tell whether a story is real or fake. Of course, when you actually read an article you can usually tell. The problem, however, is that on social media many people just glance at headlines and share links.
Many websites publish fake news simply as clickbait. They want people to click on shocking headlines in order to get clicks so they can sell more advertising. There are also sites with a strong ideological slant. These may be extreme right wing, left wing or conspiracy sites. Many of these sites aren’t very discerning about publishing “news” stories that back their point of view.
A professor named Melissa Zimdars recently published a controversial list of fake news sites. This list mentions several categories of fake news sites that are often linked to on Facebook. Of course, any such list is bound to be incomplete, as new sites are constantly appearing. In some cases, there’s also a question of who is qualified to determine what is real and what is fake. Zimdar’s list has already come under criticism for being biased against conservatives. The fact remains, however, that there are now at least hundreds of fake news sites circulating false information over the internet.
The Harmful Impact of Fake News
In some cases, false information can have a strong impact on society. During the previous election, for example, many questionable or fake news stories circulated. One example of this occurred close to the election, when a story that tied Hillary Clinton to a pedophilia and human trafficking ring was widely shared on Facebook. It turned out that this originated with a single unsubstantiated post on a conspiracy forum and was then reposted on thousands of other websites.
Social media stories, whether true or not, often go viral. The more outrageous and newsworthy something is, the more likely that many people will share it. During a highly-polarized election, people are motivated to share anything that supports their candidate or, more likely, attacks the opposing candidate. This can result in false stories widely circulating. Even if false stories are discredited and recanted, the damage is already done. By the time a retraction is published, millions of people may have already seen the story.
It’s even possible that the outcome of the election was swayed by fake news stories. The Washington Post recently published an interview with Paul Horner, someone who admits to writing many fake news stories about the election that were widely circulated by Trump supporters.