The proclaimed false-news epidemic hitting the internet is hardly news at all. From clickbait to satire to tabloids, purposefully-misleading headlines and articles have been around since the birth of modern media; even prior to that, dealing with misinformation was an unavoidable part of the human experience. The only difference now is, in today’s age of mass digital media, one well-placed hoax has the ability to con millions of viewers- many of whom will passively accept the information they process without further research and corroboration. Oftentimes, these hoax articles even tend towards the ridiculous, but for some reason we’ve fallen into the mindset that, oh, it was published- so it must be the truth. But in many cases, that couldn’t be further from reality.
On August 26, 2016, after receiving bias-related complaints regarding the news content appearing on Facebook feeds, the social media service replaced its human vetting of news stories with a news sorting algorithm meant to do the job just as well. While it promised that a human quality control team would continue to supervise the posting of links, one prominent incident of a false story falling through the cracks of this new system made many question its effectiveness. Shortly after the change was implemented, Facebook’s new algorithm placed a 9/11 hoax article in a prominent spot on the Facebook trending news bar, which “informed” its audience that Manhattan’s Twin Towers had not indeed been attacked by hijacked airplanes in 2001, but rather were bombed.
Later, as America’s “election of the century” approached, the creation and spread of false news stories would become more concerning as they began to shape the nation’s political landscape. In mid-November of this year, Buzzfeed performed an analysis confirming that in the last three months of the United States’ presidential campaign, “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.” Prior to this, articles from legitimate news outlets had been more popular among Facebook users; however, as the election drew closer, an increasing number of individuals viewed articles with a plain bias towards one candidate or the other. Notably, one such article claimed that a pizza place in Washington, D.C., Comet Ping Pong, was involved in a child abuse ring headed by Clinton and the chairman of her campaign, and people fell for it to the extent that the restaurant continued to receive threatening messages even after the election. This incident generated an entire conspiracy theory, referred to as “Pizzagate,” with its very own swarm of true believers on Twitter despite the utter lack of supporting evidence.
Some have even gone so far as to claim false news on social media pulled voters over to Donald Trump’s side, after it was revealed that a Russian propaganda campaign aided in the publication and advertisement of anti-Hillary articles leading up to the election. Max Read, writing for New York Magazine, proposed that, “the most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.” Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the situation in a Facebook post, assuring readers that his company is taking steps towards reducing the severity of the issue but will face obstacles due to the complexity of the situation.
Admittedly, despite social media companies’ best efforts, some false news stories are bound to escape notice, and either way we can’t expect somebody else to think for us all the time. We cannot control the executive decisions of major technology companies influencing what we are exposed to, nor is there a universal litmus test available to determine the veracity of articles. So ultimately it is we, the multitudes surfing the web, that enable our own gullibility: as journalist and historian Neal Gabler put it, “the American people are accessories in their own disinformation campaign.”
Therefore- remain alert. Sites like Fake News Watch list websites known to provide false information, and http://realorsatire.com/ allows you to copy and paste article URLs to determine the legitimacy of their content. ATTN: has also done a useful piece on combatting fake news. Pay a little more attention to the information you typically scroll through without thought, and if you catch sight of a headline that seems a little surprising or off, Google it. In the history of humankind we’ve never before had information at our fingertips the way we do with instant search engines, and we ought to use these resources to our advantage as often as possible- especially in situations like these, where there is no better way to discover the truth about that one article claiming “Facebook User Verifies Truth Of Article By Carefully Checking It Against Own Preconceived Opinions.”
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.