Share If You Agree: Fake News is Inside the Walls

Fake news. A global phenomenon as ancient as humanity, but one that roared into the public consciousness in 2016. Between a plethora of liberal and conservative sites alike making things up to cater to readers and a certain president accusing major news organizations of being peddlers of “fake news” to prop up their “failing” reputations, we’ve heard the term everywhere. Researchers found that fake news—real fake news, as it were, as in stories that were made up whole cloth, not extensively researched investigative journalism unmasking the wrongdoings of the Trump campaign—flooded social media in the weeks preceding the election.

That hasn’t stopped. Purveyors of fake news are gaining ground and penetrating the popular consciousness. The tech industry, which has an app for everything, can’t seem to get it together on the issue. The media, fighting to stay above water in a climate where few people want to pay for their news, is facing a public that isn’t media literate yet simultaneously professes distrust in the media.

How do we solve a problem like fake news?

To understand the issue, it helps to get a closer look at how people find news and what influences their interpretations of it. That starts with the biggest online traffic drivers: Google and Facebook., which conducts extensive research on the mechanics of online traffic, finds that 43 percent of web traffic is driven by Facebook, with Google following at 33 percent—Facebook outpaced Google in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. The next closest in the rankings? Twitter, at under three percent. To say that Facebook has a profound impact on what people see and how they interpret it is, perhaps, an understatement.

In fact, Facebook came under fire in 2016 for failing to bring the fake news problem to heel. Mark Zuckerberg fired back in outrage after the election, though the site recently shamefacedly rolled out a “disputed” tag for stories deemed questionable by fact-checking partners like Snopes and PolitiFact.

According to researchers at Stanford University exploring fake news and the election, 14 percent of Americans said social media was their primary source of news. When the researchers analyzed known fake news stories disseminated on social media during the three months preceding the election, they noted 30 million shares of Trump-favoring fake news in contrast with just eight million favoring Secretary Clinton. Half of their subjects believed the fake news they encountered, and they were more likely to find it credible when it supported their candidate.

This shouldn’t be shocking. It’s a textbook example of confirmation bias, a key concept in psychology. Humans seek out things that support their existing views, regardless of political leaning—thus people on the right naturally share a story about Nancy Pelosi being led out of her office in handcuffs, while those on the left just as happily share a story claiming that Donald Trump kicks puppies. The researchers found confirmation bias especially strong in “ideologically segregated” networks—i.e., the bubble.

The bubble gets a bad rap these days, with left and right alike kicking back on the notion that they should communicate across political divides. Do I need to understand the racist motivations of hardcore Trump supporters? No thanks, hard pass, I understand them just fine. But do I have friends and colleagues who are Republicans, Libertarians, and members of other conservative parties? Do we collaborate on projects and share political interests? Does that enrich my understanding of the world and ability to view media critically? Yes, and I was startled to find out that this is not the case for many people I know.

There’s something else at work here as well: the backfire effect. When people are presented with factual corrections to information that is wrong, paradoxically, they cling harder to the inaccurate information. Nearly every Facebook user is probably familiar with this one—how many times did you see a blatantly false and absurd story in the last six months, only to find that when you said “actually…” and provided a correction, people doubled down?

It’s a perfect storm for the care and feeding of fake news on the right and left, from pizzagate to GMO conspiracies. Did Clinton really run a pedophile ring out of the back of a pizza parlor? How are we even having this conversation? Are genetically modified mosquitoes spreading Zika? Again, why are rational adult humans entertaining such obviously nonsensical and counterfactual information? It’s because it’s all around us, a heady cultural brew of falsehoods and a web of lies that begins to feel perfectly reasonable, all things considered.

Okay, but what about Google, whose motto used to be “don’t be evil”? Surely people searching for news and information on Google can find material that’s accurate, useful, and applicable to their interests, right?

Have you actually used Google Search lately? Because a strange thing is happening to everyone’s favorite search engine. Search for “abortion statistics” and the front page of Google is heavily stacked with anti-choice propaganda. The first search result below the Wikipedia excerpt at the top of the page is from Abort73. Guttmacher barely ranks above National Right to Life. Search, ostensibly a nonpartisan product designed to index and provide access to accurate information, has turned partisan.

Searching for a wide variety of information doesn’t always give you the Times, the Post, NPR, and other respected and reasonably neutral sites. Instead, it turns up sites like Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Hot Air, and TheBlaze—along with RT, Addicting Info, Occupy Democrats, the Huffington Post, and Natural News on the left. For those with media literacy, sifting through these biased results is an irritating, but straightforward, exercise. For those without, it’s a snarl of counterfactual information calculated to draw clicks and encourage people to both believe and disseminate. Google isn’t using a “disputed” tag and appears unable to keep pace with adjusting the search algorithm to promote the display of neutral, reputable information. Fake news peddlers are constantly ahead when it comes to gaming Search to climb the ranks.

People are drowning in fake news, and no one’s throwing them a life ring. A number of major news organizations and tech companies just joined up to form the News Integrity Initiative, which has a nice name and lofty goals but is a bit thin on the mechanics. A technological fix for fake news requires creating an environment in which reputable, verified information rises to the top while false data filters to the bottom, but on social media, that’s continually stymied by shares of fake news from people who don’t know better, or, chillingly, don’t care. Tagging stories as “satire” or “fake news” can only serve to amplify feelings of distrust—seen, for example, when Breitbart accused Facebook of relying on “left-wing” fact checkers.

Major news organizations like the Times and the Post have their own fact-checking staffs, and numerous nonpartisan groups have also created their own. But even as they’re evaluating claims and statements for accuracy, they’re still facing a public that doesn’t want to hear it. When Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the venerable and highly respected ProPublica a “left-wing blog” and the social media team fired back in an inspired display of fact checking, the left cheered, but the audience Spicer was pandering to didn’t see it or viewed it as further evidence of the publication’s subversive editorial ethic. After all, that magnifying glass logo does look suspiciously like a hammer and sickle.

Arguably, the time for media literacy training is in school. Youth should learn how to sift through and evaluate information. Slashes to education funding, including cuts to library services, which are invaluable for learning how to find and use information, are jeopardizing that. This devalues not just information, but larger historical context: We live in a pics-or-it-didn’t-happen, #breaking, news-of-the-moment society—one in which the long view has become unfashionable. Without experience and context to back our media consumption, our responses are inherently shallow and flawed. Researchers are already finding that college students don’t know how to study—they can’t find information, and when they do, they don’t know how to determine its validity.

This is not simply a tech industry problem, or even just a media literacy one, or a bubble issue. It’s a heady combination of the three, and that’s what makes it so hard to fight. Polarized politics have made it extremely difficult to communicate across social and political divides, entrenching fake news, conspiracy theories, and denial. Simply using technology to tag falsehoods doesn’t work, and educating people about how to interpret media is only effective when they’re open to that conversation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but those of us on the left should start by putting our own houses in order, interrogating the sources we view as reliable, fact checking information before distributing it, and being open to the idea that if something sounds too good (or bad) to be true, maybe it’s not. 

s.e. smith's headshot. they are wearing blue and their short, curly brown hair halos their head.
by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.

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