Look within on ‘fake news’

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

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.

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