We live in an age when information rules all. The effortless transferral of ideas, fact, or fiction is our everyday reality and it’s important to come to grips with that. Trending stories, viral news, clickbait, fake news, and straight propaganda devise the fabric of our social media experience whether we like it or not.
Media Literacy in the Digital Age
Scanning recent headlines, you’ll find any variety of actual corruption and cyber attacks, as well as posts targeting specific political figures with erroneous and manipulative claims. Recently, fake news stories even drove a man to attempt a mass shooting at a local pizza shop. As incredulous as these posts are, it turns out that many people can not actually tell the difference between real and fake news stories. Worse yet, these posts are incredibly profitable, with some fake news authors making up to $10,000 a month. Though, it may not even be the petty bloggers we should really be concerned following the considerations of a report released by PropOrNot, a supposedly independent group of computer scientists and journalists looking to “expose” the true culprit: The Russian propaganda machine. As a twist and given the contents of the report, mainstream media outlets are just as responsible for promoting the fake stories as foreign Russian botnets, automated social media accounts, and paid human trolls are for spreading the information, even if they are doing so unknowingly.
Yet, a simple Google search will likely bring equally condemning accusations between The Washington Post and Russia Today. Each outlet claims the other is the finest purveyor of the black art of fake news writing, making it painfully obvious neither side wants to admit their misdeeds. To keep it simple, those in dissent are the writers of fake news stories, while an outlet capitalizing on their biases is just a way of displaying what “resonates most” with an audience, thus the cycle continues.
Fake News in the Real World
Seem like a good old fashion media rivalry? You’d barely be scratching the surface. In a truly Orwellian turn of events, fake news stories are now influencing the outcomes of elections, or so you’d be lead to believe. When it came to Hillary Clinton’s email fiasco, the narrative shifted to Russians hacking DNC in an attempt to conflate the event with whistleblowers like Wikileaks, an organization with a 10-year record of never falsifying a document or being connected to Russian in any way. Although the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security issued a statement saying they were confident of Russian involvement, it’s still unclear whether the Kremlin itself or low-level, non-government affiliated Russian hackers were actually responsible according to other sources.
Meanwhile, Paul Horner’s self-made fake news journalist has taken public responsibility for helping the Trump campaign saying, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything.” Fake stories have similarly fueled nationalistic, white supremacists attempting to rebrand neo-Nazism as the “alt-right.” Before this gets too messy or political (which I fear may be too late), let’s backtrack and be productive about this issue.
What Users Can Do
During this recent election particularly, Facebook has been under fire for providing ad space for fake news sites and other hyperpartisan outlets. To start tackling this epidemic, the website is banning fake news publishers from using its ad network, working to integrate a series of new initiatives such as AI machine learning, and also partnering with fact-checking organizations. Yet, this problem is alive and well now, so what can we as users do?
Using your best judgment (and assuming you’re a morally firm, reasonably egalitarian, and dare I say, a relatively positivistic thinker and internet-goer) you, yes YOU can stop the spread of fake news stories by addressing each one should they be unfortunate enough to enter your Facebook feed. All it takes is a simple click into the top right corner of a link to a story, where you’ll be funneled through the process of reporting the content. Checking ‘it’s a false news story’ will flag the post for review by Facebook and add to the volume of similar reports throughout the site.
Though, before you even make it to this point review the following considerations:
- What’s the source?
- Can you read beyond the headline?
- Check the author.
- Who’s supporting/sharing this information?
- What’s the date of publication?
- Is there satire involved?
- Check your own biases.
- Consult experts for clarification.
It’s not always easy to tell what is true in this rapidly changing and (sometimes purposefully) confusing world of digital information. Although, just as it’s important to share and spread awareness about causes and events that really matter, you’ll need to make sure that the information is correct and the logic is sound before it’s posted to the detriment of public opinion and possibly actual policies. As always, recognizing one’s own biases and inclination to prune a social feed into an immaculate echo chamber is increasingly important, even if we’re exposed to ideas we find offensive – such is the means by which we can grow to become a more digitally literate internet and society.