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The proliferation of fake news

For better or worse, the 2016 election is over. I’m not here to talk about the results or relay yet another opinion or reactionary piece. There are an infinite number of places to consume that type of content.

I do, however, want to examine the role fake news played in the flow of information on social media and the internet at large in the months leading up to Nov. 8. A few days ago, I saw a segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” following the election on the rising influence of far-right and far-left “news” websites and Facebook pages, and I started doing some research.

As the BBC notes, “the deliberate making up of news stories to fool or entertain is nothing new. But the arrival of social media has meant real and fictional stories are now presented in such a similar way that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the two apart.”

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study on news across social media platforms, 62 percent of adults get at least some of their news from social media. In that context, it’s easy to see the proliferation of fake news, which has seen even some of the most credible organizations duped by falsehoods. This May 2016 piece from the Columbia Journalism Review does a great job of aggregating some of those incidents.

Why has this become a growing trend? Here are a couple of big reasons:

  • The media is under even more pressure to deliver compelling news that attracts clicks, potentially at the expense of diligent and accurate reporting. According to Pew, “In 2015, total advertising revenue among publicly traded companies declined nearly 8 percent, including losses not just in print, but digital as well.“

  • Many of us are guilty of living in the “filter bubble,” which describes the internet’s—and social media’s—ability to filter and provide content to a user that supports his or her individual beliefs. The result is a growing number of fake news pages that attempt to draw traffic with false reports that have a higher probability of going viral and which cater to audiences with specific viewpoints. The Guardian said it best in July: “The same principle applies to news that is misleading or sensationally dishonest, even if it wasn’t created to deceive: The new measure for too many news organizations is virality rather than truth or quality.”

Now, a week after the election, many are wondering what role social media, particularly Facebook, played in the distribution of false information. Facebook is under fire for refusing to acknowledge the potential role it played in spreading fake news on both sides, with Mark Zuckerburg claiming that less than 1 percent of Facebook content is fake or false. But then I look at a story that incorrectly reported that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump, which was shared more than 1 million times on the platform, and it makes me wonder if that 1 percent figure might be more than a little off.

The same can be said for left-leaning fake news sites, with some wrongfully reporting that Russian president Vladimir Putin rigged Twitter after the first presidential debate. A BuzzFeed article, released Oct. 20, found that “38 percent of all posts [from right-leaning news sites] were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false, compared to 19 percent of posts from three hyperpartisan left-wing pages that were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false.”

It wouldn’t be as big a deal if these stories weren’t getting much engagement, but as Slate notes, “These falsehoods attracted far more user engagement, on average, than true stories from the same outlets and drowned out earnest attempts by dedicated fact-checking sites such as Snopes to debunk them.”

Regardless of your politics, those numbers are egregious, and these sites and trends can become a very real problem that spills beyond the realm of politics and begins to impact consumer industries.

The good news is Google and Facebook are now addressing the problem. On Monday, Google announced it would ban fake news sites from AdSense in an attempt to sever those sites’ revenue streams, while Facebook updated its Facebook Audience Network policy which now allows it to ban fake news sites from using its display advertising mechanisms.

Albeit perhaps a bit too late, it’s somewhat heartening to see information companies take some responsibility in how they distribute information, especially as the Facebooks and Googles of the world take increasingly important roles in the dissemination of that information.

Photo credit: SlashGear

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