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What Role Does Social Media Have To Play In The Transmission Of Fake News?

“Fake news is a threat to democratic elections also as the DCMS claim: “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans.”

Throughout history, technology has played an enormous role in how society consumes the news and media. The invention of social media has revolutionised that concept. From Facebook to Twitter people can get access to news quicker than ever before. This advancement has also brought around the ability to share inaccurate news and fake news to unsuspecting people. Through sharing and ‘click-baiting’ fake news has become one of journalism biggest issues. Fake news took its prime grip on society predominantly since the 2016 US election, though there are other examples. From death hoaxes to the Brexit Bus, fake news is there. social media has simply given it a powerful stepping stone.

During the US election according to Hunt Allcott & Matthew Gentzkow (2017, p.212) say ‘We confirm that fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favour of Donald Trump. Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.’ From the above statement, we can see that roughly 10% of the US population (30 million) shared fake pro-Trump stories. To put that into perspective, that is nearly half of the UK population. Facebook’s ability to share these stories combined with the political climate has evidently influenced the populous of the United States possibly altering the results of the election. Hunt Allcott & Matthew Gentzkow also claim that the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories in the US. This comes after they found that 62% of US adults claim to get their news from social media. It is without a doubt that if these fake news stories were widely shared across Facebook that a large majority of those 62% would have at least seen those stories. They estimate that approximately 760 million instances of a user clicking and reading a fake news story, which translates roughly to 3 false stories read per American adult. This illustrates the huge impact that social media can have to help circulate false information.

Social media has also helped to spread disinformation during Brexit. Brexit is a subject that is very closely linked with the US election of 2016 and often is quoted as an event that was associated with a large number of fake news stories. The biggest fake news story of Brexit is definitely the leave campaigns NHS bus. It was widely circulated on social media and claimed to give £350 million per week to the NHS if the UK decides to leave which turned out to be a complete fabrication. In reality, the EU membership fee is deducted to help support the poorest areas, farms and other industries and after that, it leaves the real fee of £136 million per week, a 60% reduction from the original number. The Institute for Fiscal Studies branded the figure as ‘clearly absurd.’ A claim can be made that fake or false news travels further than real news because it evokes a level of surprise, whereas true or real news is often found with sadness or trust. A study found from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2018, p.1146) ‘There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumour cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumours were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.’ This is due to the fact that fake news is often sensationalised, so, therefore, is exciting and grabs the reader’s attention more than less extreme stories.

Fake news is not always fake news, for instance, a news site called TeleSUR English, the English language version of a Venezuelan based broadcaster supported by five Latin American governments, has been repeatedly removed from Facebook without reason. This suggests that social media will be taking censorship into their own hands instead of clear, thought out laws by governments. As Chauncey Alcorn (2018) says ‘Several popular left-leaning and progressive content creators on Facebook have either been booted from the site with no clear explanation as to why or have seen their traffic take a nosedive after being erroneously flagged as fake news.’ Fake news is increasingly becoming a threat to democracy across the world, for example, Sri Lanka’s week-long ban on social media called a “digital curfew.” This is a threat to freedom of speech. Instead of punishing the people it should be the sites that share them or the people that create them, for example The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee (2018) believe that since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, social media companies should face harder regulations or even a new type of tax. Not only is fake news a threat to freedom of speech, but it is also a threat to democratic elections also as the DCMS claim: “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans”. This quote suggests social media’s role in influencing voting plans is being an easy to use and abuse platform for bots and fake news authors, as seen with the 115 pro-Trump stories.

“Social bots are programmed Facebook accounts which help to like, share and comment on posts of certain agendas which can often help to spread fake news.”

Social media has helped to platform all kinds of journalism and news, not just true or fake news. There is also a subset of satire news sites which can sometimes be easily mistaken for misinformation and fake news. Satire news does share some characteristics with fake news however its factual incorrectness is often used to call someone out, ridicule, expose, or just make fun of a subject. Whereas fake news’ intention on social media is to spread lies surrounding a certain topic or subject. For example a study from the University of Maryland ‘fake news vs satire: a data set and analysis’ (2018 p.1) suggests: ‘If actual fake news is to be combated at web-scale, we must be able to develop mechanisms to automatically classify and differentiate it from satire and legitimate news.’ Stories on Facebook all seem the same, with similar sensational headlines and photos, perhaps it is the real news creating sensational headlines to keep ahead of their competition which is assisting the fake news and satire to blend into the mainstream media on people’s Facebook news feeds.

Facebook’s easy ability to create an account has easily contributed to the spread of fake news. Social bots are programmed Facebook accounts which help to like, share and comment on posts of certain agendas which can often help to spread fake news. The company removed 559 pages and 251 accounts that helped spam and spread misinformation and had this to say: “The people behind the activity also post the same click-bait posts in dozens of Facebook Groups, often hundreds of times in a short period, to drum up traffic for their websites and they often use their fake accounts to generate fake likes and shares. This artificially inflates engagement for their inauthentic pages and the posts they share, misleading people about their popularity and improving their ranking in news feed.” This isn’t just true for Facebook, for example during Amazon’s workers environmental disputes a strange army of Amazon affiliate workers, which turned out to be bots, reassured twitter users that they can use the toilet while they work. ‘They’re mostly stowers, pickers or packers, and they claim to work in warehouses ranging from Kent, Washington, to Jacksonville, Florida.’ The Guardian said. This suggests that companies are using social media to spread misinformation through the specific use of bots, which give a human characteristic making them more believable to unsuspecting readers. This proves that fake news is often less obvious and harder to detect than initially believed.

Death hoaxes are also a strange yet recurring problem on social media. There has been a fake death for Sir Rowan Atkinson, and even Sylvester Stallone. For example, a fake news story from a Twitter account posing as the BBC claimed Queen Elizabeth II had died, which soon became a trending hashtag on Twitter, spread at such a rate that real news sites began to believe it was true and prepared news stories of their own for the event. This was until the Royal family had to release a statement that she had in fact not died. The Washington Post reported (2016) “A number of Twitter users began tweeting that there had been a “media blackout” in an attempt to hide news of the queen’s death from the public. By Friday, it was one of the top trending topics on Twitter” This proves that news travels so quickly on social media, that fake news can spread at a rate too fast to be combated by accurate news sources. This has a negative impact on social media users because it makes the likelihood of them finding out the truth much lower.

An argument can be made that people crave confirmation of our views and social media is the perfect place for this to happen. With a site like Facebook, you can physically see how many people share the same opinion as you and even communicate with them in the comments. This according to Dr Jens Binder (2017) is our bias being validated through confirmation: “the more people share my sense of understanding, the more I am convinced that I got it right.” This helps to create echo chambers in social media, where people with similar opinions communicate, view and share things to do with said opinion and often block out things that try to contradict their view. This can be a contributing factor in how fake news is spread if it is targeted at a specific group, for instance, the 115 pro-Trump fact stories in the US 2016 election. Social media also use algorithms in platforms like Facebook to filter a user’s news feed showing them stories representing opinions similar to their own. This means that users are not seeing a comprehensive overview of news stories. Fake news uses these algorithms to be viewed by people who are most likely to be responsive to their story, as say News24 (2018) ‘At the heart of the spread of fake news are the algorithms used by search engines, websites and social media which are often accused of pushing false or manipulated information regardless of the consequences.’ This issue is specific to social media as with other forms of news such as newspapers, the reader was aware that their news was being filtered based on which kind of newspapers they would choose to buy. However, with social media, the majority of users are not aware of these algorithms and therefore do not know that their news is being filtered.

Overall the points throughout this essay collectively prove social media is one of the biggest influences in the transmission of fake news. Due to the fact that it is both easily edited and widely viewed while being difficult to differentiate between many different stories and opinions on social media. This has a negative effect on society as it has altering effects upon elections, changes people’s views on social issues, and alters how our freedoms are impeached. If some kind of action is not taken to tackle fake news then social media is sure to become even more of a breeding ground for misinformation.

Bibliography

  1. Allcott, H. & Gentzkow, M. 2017 The Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association.
  2. Alcorn, C. 2018, Left-wing news sites censored on Facebook aren’t in favour of banning Alex Jones either, The Mic. https://mic.com/articles/190621/left-wing-news-sites-censored-on-facebook-arent-in-favor-of-banning-alex-jones-either#.lR0Zb1JlG
  3. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018, Science volume 359.Binder, J. 2017, Why does fake news go viral? Experts give 7 reasons, BT.com. http://home.bt.com/tech-gadgets/internet/why-does-fake-news-go-viral-11364225690826
  4. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, 2018, Fake news a democratic crisis for the UK, MPs warn, The BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-44967650
  5. Golbeck, J. et al. 2018, Fake News vs Satire: A Dataset and Analysis, University of Maryland.
  6. Frier, S. 2018, Facebook Has Removed More Than 800 U.S. Accounts Spreading Fake News, Times Online. http://time.com/5422546/facebook-removes-800-fake-news-accounts/
  7. Tynan, D. 2018, Amazon’s ‘ambassador’ workers assure Twitter: we can go to the toilet any time, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/aug/23/amazon-fc-ambassadors-twitter-working-conditions
  8. Taylor, A. 2016, A Twitter hoax briefly convinced some that Queen Elizabeth II was dead, The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/30/a-twitter-hoax-briefly-convinced-britain-that-queen-elizabeth-ii-was-dead/?utm_term=.36c4e29898ae

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