Donald Trump is now President-Elect, but was his road to victory paved with fake news?
Back in August we wrote about the spread of fake news stories and misinformation on social media and the conditions under which they thrive.
It was a piece inspired by a number of ridiculous stories spreading across social at the time, and the troubling ways in which we share sensational stories without checking their authenticity.
As an election cycle defined by scandal unfolded, the scale at which fake news stories were being disseminated about the candidates wasn’t the primary concern of mainstream commentators, but it has become the angry think-piece subject du jour and rightly so.
Fake news, as we will discuss, is a terrifying problem. But there’s far more to the potentially misleading role of social media in politics than that.
Against a backdrop of social networks being battered for facilitating malicious content, widespread acknowledgment that the real world can look very different to your own newsfeed and a political landscape in which it seems the truth no longer matters (and with the benefit of hindsight) it’s time to explore the role of lies, technology, and social media in Donald Trump’s rise to Presidential power.
The Oxford English Dictionary just announced that their word of the year is “post-truth”, a decision that’s been lauded as brilliantly fitting in some places and heavily criticized in others. It certainly made the word a thing this week.
The adjective is described as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Trump’s relationship with the truth is hardly a playbook for a happy marriage and the U-turns on grand claims made by Brexiteers are well documented, but the year of “post-truth” (if we are to accept it as such) doesn’t just apply to official political campaigns.
A good example of how the internet is waking up to the problem of fake news is this tweet that did the rounds this week.
It’s one of hundreds of examples of legitimate-looking but ultimately false stories that have been shared across social media, sometimes trending.
Fake news stories can be cooked up by any number of organizations or individuals for any number of reasons, but their success during an election cycle is pretty terrifying.
An investigation from Buzzfeed News, the headline result of which is shown below, revealed the extent to which these stories were successful in the run-up to election day.
It’s scary stuff.
What can be done about fake news and misinformation? The answer is difficult.
Both Facebook and Google have pledged to remove advertising from fake news sites, cutting incentives for them to be set up and maintained. Weeding out fake news at the scale it is being created could be the real challenge.
Twitter can’t be exempt from the criticism surrounding social’s roll in potentially misleading public opinion. Research reveals that bots, like fake news, are another dirty trick employed this election cycle to spread political messages or discredit candidates.
Bots can fire messages across a social network efficiently and boost topics up the trending list fast. Like fake news, they present their own challenges in being weeded out – an individual account with no profile picture and a recent sign-up date who fervently retweets pro-Trump messages from a specific source could well be human, and any heavy-handed attempt to censor accounts without a sophisticated system for identifying people from bots would surely result in a backlash.
It’s not the easiest time to be the head of a major social network.
It’s not just fake news purveyors and lying candidates that prevent us from seeing the whole truth. We also play a part in setting up our own little bubbles in the shape of the accounts we friend and follow and algorithms pay close attention to the articles we interact with.
62% of US adults get their news from Facebook. On the platform, algorithms decide what news you see and, surprise, surprise! You’re mostly shown stories that confirm your beliefs, that you’re more likely to read and share, based on your previous preferences. My news will almost certainly look different to your news, and this narrows things somewhat.
On Twitter, unless we go out of our way to follow people we disagree with, our feeds are dominated by the views and opinions of people we know and/or agree with.
If you spend a lot of time on social media and were surprised by the election result you might want to Google the term “echo chamber”.
Acknowledging echo chambers can be uncomfortable when you question your own thoughts surrounding a party or candidate and how they are influenced by the contents of your newsfeed.
Consider that the reasons you voted for someone might not be as grounded in reality as you thought and that the candidate you hated most might not be as bad as the algorithm made them out to be.
While the traditional media hardly has a sparkling record of reporting the facts, a dwindling print readership and a push for fast, cheap and abundant online content hasn’t exactly improved standards. There are plenty of examples of fake or dubiously sourced news stories making it into the publications people trust.
While “post-truth” can be debated as a term, there’s no disputing that social media as a whole is in a fascinatingly scary quandary at the moment.
Without tough moderation, lies spread like wildfire – the more fanciful the faster and more gleefully they’re shared. Equally, attempts to alter what’s trending has led to enormous controversy.
The average Facebook scroller doesn’t have the resources (let alone the time) available to them to verify the news as it is presented, and when it’s presented unmoderated the truth is a malleable object.
As we said three months ago:
As our news sources have become more diverse and their distribution democratized no one organization or group of organizations has a monopoly on the truth. The ways our timelines and newsfeeds operate mean reality is being presented in very different ways to each individual and there’s no shortage of misinformation being spread far and wide across social on top of that…Truth is to false as up-voted is to down-voted”
Could the misleading aspects of social media be enough to put someone in the White House? This election more than any other, it’s possible.
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