On December 4, a man walked into a neighborhood pizza place with a gun, positive that he was about to encounter a vast conspiracy involving child sexual abuse and Hillary Clinton. What brought him there? Fake news.
The man in question was quickly arrested. Later that night, however, Michael Flynn Jr., son of president-elect Trump’s security advisor and a former member of his transition team, tweeted: “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”
Clearly, fake news has far reaching impacts, convincing not just trigger happy internet vigilantes but also those within our government. According to a BuzzFeed analysis, in the last three months of the campaign, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.”
Top false stories included reports that Pope Francis endorsed Trump, Clinton sold weapons to ISIS, Clinton’s foundation gave millions to the FBI director, and Clinton was legally disqualified from holding office. According to BuzzFeed, those four stories, all originating from one “utterly untrustworthy” site, “racked up a total of roughly 2,953,000 Facebook engagements in the three months leading up to Election Day.”
According to a May Pew Research report, 62 percent of U.S. adults receive their news on social media, and 18 percent of them rely on their media often. While many of users also get news from traditional outlets such as print and cable, the permeation of false news throughout social media is still noteworthy.
The ramifications of this influx of fake news can be painful and even dangerous, as evidenced by the pizza parlor shooting threat. “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and off their phones, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” President Obama said at a news conference in Berlin on November 17, according to the New York Times.
Perhaps more frighteningly, widespread false reports can lead to disputes over the facts themselves, making it difficult to find common ground with those outside of your ideological bubble. According to a Pew Research survey from October, 81 percent of respondents said that supporters of Clinton and Trump didn’t just disagree on policy but also disagree on “basic facts.” A 2014 report by the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy found that homogeneous online clusters — “echo chambers” — helped false reports spread.
As humans, we tend to prefer narratives that confirm our worldview, which leaves us especially vulnerable to fake news. It “creates an ecosystem in which the truth value of the information doesn’t matter,” Walter Quattrociocchi, an author of the 2014 study, told the New York Times. “All that matters is whether the information fits in your narrative.”
Ultimately, while we recommend being conscientious of what you see and share on social media, the best solution is to buy a subscription to a reputable organization such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. While no news source is completely objective, it is important to ensure that what the news you read follows legal and ethical journalistic guidelines. In addition, paying for news provides organizations with funds that they critically need.
It’s easy to turn to news sources that tell you the stories you want to hear, and entertain rather than inform. For many outlets, hit hard by the internet era and desperate to gain readers as ad revenue decreases and budgets are cut, pandering is the only way to survive.
However, with president-elect Trump already flouting tradition by refusing to let the presidential press pool accompany him, and after having a combative relationship with the press during his campaign, the last thing we want is for news organizations’ ability to hold the powerful accountable to weaken further.
As students and as journalists, it’s our responsibility to seek out facts over satisfying fiction, and to think critically about the information we are being given and the source it’s coming from. Doing so is the only way that we can both stay informed and address the increasing polarization of our country.
As Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron told New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?”