Monday, November 28, 2016

Trustworthy, Misleading, Or Just Plain False? The State of Information In 2016

Eli Shively

A good chunk of the millennial population (including myself) will remember this phrase — "ask your parents' permission before going online." Good advice to give any young Internet user, as the chaotic nature of the web could lead to unassuming kids who didn't know any better believing any "factual info" they happened to come across.

As it turns out, however, in this day and age we can't practice what we preach. Misleading, clickbait-y headlines, poor reporting and just plain fake information pop up countless times a day on our timelines and in our inboxes, and like a bunch of unsupervised children, we click and share, click and share, click and share. We don't bother to check the source, the byline or even, at times, the actual copy of the article. An entire generation of people who stressed to their kids that not everything they see on TV is true just fell victim to the exact phenomenon they so feared, except on a different platform.

So Does This "Fake News" Have An Impact?

In short, yes, and a scarily large one at that. The graph below (made by Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman) shows just how quickly and drastically fake news engagements grew on Facebook in 2016.
The graph examines fake news in the context of the Presidential election cycle — which, in essence, is what allowed such rapid growth to occur. In fact, many political analysts argued after Donald Trump's historic win that fake news actually caused a lot of people to vote for him.

The reason for this kind of speculation is that the majority of fake news published and shared over social media platforms actually leans heavily toward the right end of the political spectrum. In some cases, it's unapologetically biased. In a recent report, BuzzFeed identified 20 extremely popular fake election stories and analyzed them — 17 out of the 20 were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton.

Okay, but how fake are we talking here?

Well, let's see — a Vox article cites headlines like "Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president" and "FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide" as being among the most popular. Neither of these things happened, but thousands of people believed they did without managing to look into their ridiculous claims and then went on to share them with their friends and family.

A fantastic, yet very scary piece in the Washington Post this month detailed the lives of the creators of, a fake news site. The article paints a vivid picture of two twenty-something men who sit around their apartment all day and make up fake news with the intention of drawing readers to their site in order to make money selling ads. Not a sliver of the information is true, but those who click don't bother to check — they believe it because it aligns with their views, and they want it to be true.

What can be done to stop fake news?

Complaints about a lack of action from Facebook to stop false information from being shared are perfectly valid, but the real responsibility falls mostly on our shoulders as consumers and producers of media. The kind of research that BuzzFeed did (and Snopes does every day, for that matter) is good — as the "real" media, it's important to remember we also have a great deal of power.

On the more personal end of things, most of the time it's as simple as telling someone who shared a fake article to research the claims certain sources make before spreading them around. Your former college roommate, distant cousin, or acquaintance you may have spoken to twice in your life may not want to hear you tell them to check the URL of an article before they assume it to be true, but the fact of the matter is it must be done.

At the end of the day, the best solution we have to the spread of fake information online is people who know better encouraging people to know better.

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