‘Fake news’ and the danger of social media

By Caitlin Allard

  • The Pope supports Donald Trump
  • There’s a tree that grows spaghetti in Italy
  • There’s a weekly orgy happening outside your local Waitrose

All of these are examples of ‘fake news’; you’ve probably seen some of it about, but not always realised. With the ever-increasing presence of social media in our lives, the ability to spread fictional news stories has become more and more possible, and more and more difficult to discern what is fact from what is not. We are moving into an age of post-truth politics where emotion overrides the desire for accuracy.

Fake news has been around since the dawn of journalism, yet social media has given it a potent, and dangerous, presence in our lives. The Pew Research Centre found that 62% of Americans get all or some of their news from social media, whilst BuzzFeed identified that 38% of posts shared on Facebook by three right wing politics sites included “false or misleading information”, whilst three large left wing pages did so 19% of the time. Can we be trusted to recognize the real from the fake?

Apparently not. The US election result has experienced much controversy, with fake news spread through Facebook supposedly influencing the result. One story included  Pope Francis backing Donald Trump, a totally false claim still being circulated by ‘fantasy news site’ WTOE 5. Previously, stories had circulated that Pope Francis did in fact support Hillary Clinton. There were also stories that an FBI agent involved with Clinton’s email leaks was found dead in his apartment. This circulated widely on Facebook on 5th November, yet the ‘news site’ releasing this information was first registered in July 2016. Another story with hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook was a quote by Clinton telling Goldman Sachs in 2013 ‘I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office. They’re honest, and can’t be bought’ – a quote that in reality was entirely fabricated. On the other hand, there was also a story released that Trump was actually born in Pakistan, his original name being ‘Dawood Ibrahim Khan’ to play against xenophobic tendencies of the voting population.

This influx of false information is akin to totalitarian style propaganda. How can democracy work without checks and balances being instated upon journalism outlets where they are received? Obama took a stand, stating ‘if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.’ Our generation is moving increasingly away from highly edited print journalism into an age of social media based news. Social media now has the responsibility, as long as it provides access to news, to ensure the accuracy of the content to which it provides publicity. Currently, stories can reach millions of people particularly in light of its new ‘trending’ feature without its truth having actually been checked.

Zuckerberg stated in response to this that it was ‘crazy’ to imply that Facebook had an impact on the US election and that ‘99%’ of the news promoted on the site is accurate. However, with 1.79 billion active Facebook users as of the third quarter of 2016 and the high presence of current affairs on the site, to avoid all responsibility for influence would be ‘crazy’ in itself.

Social media has merely given fake news a greater platform: it has remained dangerous on a national level as well as local and regional level. Fake news site Southend News Network, based in Essex, has published many comic stories about the local area, including a false tale of a child drowning in a Sports Direct mug, and of a weekly orgy happening outside Southend Waitrose. However, it can become toxic; one story entitled ‘HERO MUM “smashes paedophile ring” on Southend High Street’ went viral, being believed by some and causing backlash against the two tourists accused. Although mostly humorous and well intentioned, fake news sites have the potential to destroy lives.

Falsified journalism is not a new concept. It has been around from the dawn of print journalism, perhaps an even more dangerous form. Journalist Janet Cooke invented an 8-year-old heroine addict for her article ‘Jimmy’s World’, published by The Washington Post in September 1980, described as having ‘needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.’ She received the Pullitzer Prize for her article; a Washington wide search for the boy was instigated with support from the mayor of the city. It was only discovered to be fake when the boy could not be found. She returned the prize. Another instance was Dan Rather’s attempt to throw the 2004 US election.  He released documents incriminating Bush supposedly from the 1960s through CBS, yet once made available on the internet, their validity came into question due to his use of font found on 2004 Microsoft Word software. Although this is a comic example of stupidity, Stephen Glass’ career is more threatening. He published over 40 fake news stories in Rolling Stone, The New Republic, and Policy. Why so many? They were published without proper editing, being ‘too good to check’, playing to the desires of his publishers. He was only discovered through stepping slightly too far, inventing both a fake software company and hacker in his story. The cover up led to even more fake stories on CBS.

Ultimately, whether in print or online, the press has its own agenda. This can be seen in the use of the term ‘migrants’ for refugees across right wing newspapers. Furthermore, the term ‘terrorist’ has no decided definition, yet is used by newspapers, an issue particularly relevant in light of the sentencing of Jo Cox’s murderer. Without a definition, any usage will be determined according to what constitutes a terrorist to the news outlet – Nelson Mandela was referred to as a ‘terrorist’ regularly in the 1980s.

A system of checking for falsehoods across the entirety of social media would be impossible, and although online platforms should introduce task forces to tackle widespread falsehoods, we must be aware of the unreliability of online news. If not, we may end up like countries such as Ghana, which are shutting down social media around election times. We must use common sense: identify the publisher, see if it has been reported anywhere else, and try to find more than one piece of evidence for this claim. If everybody did this, we would have a more enlightened global population. However, in the mean time, we must as individuals see beyond falsehoods in the press, spread the truth where possible, and search for the deeper truth behind fake stories published.

Photograph: Alessio Jacona via Flickr

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