Look within on ‘fake news’
It’s perhaps a bit ironic that news about “fake news” permeated much of our national discourse over the past two weeks, especially on social media.
Google and Facebook have been under pressure since Election Day to do more to combat the growth of fake news and their ability to validate it. In the days after the election, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg called it “crazy” that social media’s ability to spread fake news impacted Donald Trump’s victory, but President Barack Obama also said last week that fake news had the power to “damage democracy” around the world.
A Buzzfeed investigation found that in the final three months of the presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.
During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook. Within that same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7.3 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.
Up until those last three months of the campaign, the top election content from major outlets had easily outpaced that of fake election news on Facebook, Buzzfeed found. Then, as the election drew closer, engagement for fake content on Facebook skyrocketed and surpassed that of the content from major news outlets.
These developments follow a previous Buzzfeed investigation that found more than 100 U.S. politics websites are being run out of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where impoverished teens typed up completely false stories about the Pope endorsing Trump, or Hillary Clinton’s murderous coverup of her email scandal, in or- der to rake in small Google AdSense payments. Two false election stories from Macedonian sites made the top 10 list in terms of Facebook engagement in the final three months, according to Buzzfeed.
The findings of Buzzfeed’s work are particularly troubling since a Pew Reserch Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans say they primarily get their news from social media sites like Facebook. With all of the shadowy origins and scandalous reasoning, though, the most concerning part about the growth of fake news is much bigger: Its impact is not restrained to your irascible uncle or kooky coworker, but to our highest levels of politics.
President-elect Donald Trump was called out several times on the campaign trail over the past year for retweeting patently false news stories, including one in which Fox News — the last bastion of conservative-leaning news coverage — called him out on it.
In that case, Trump retweeted a false chart that claimed black on white killings were nearly eight times higher than they actually are.
“That’s totally wrong; whites killed by blacks is 15 percent, yet you tweeted it was 81 percent,” host Bill O’Reilly said, referring to the FBI’s 2014 crime statistics. What was Trump’s explanation? He blamed it on a “supposed expert” from a radio show that he couldn’t remember and told O’Reilly, “Am I gonna check every statistic?”
To pin the growth of false news on the president-elect would be foolhardy, however, as others, including former Arkansas governor turned pundit Mike Huckabee just this past week, were peddling provenly false links to stories.
No, the fault for the growth of fake news lies in ourselves.
Yes, Google and Facebook should do more to not validate fake news just as it does for hate speech, as it only harms the public’s perception about society, but ultimately it is us who decide to click on a link. We should hold our public officials to high standards just as we should hold ourselves, and discuss facts rather than rants. Only then will an informed democracy prevail.