Fighting the fake-news phenomenon

Economists Matthew Gentzkow and Hunt Allcott define fake news as stories “that have no factual basis but are presented as facts.”

During the 2016 Presidential Election, Facebook and Twitter were plagued with a plethora of these fake stories, mostly containing pro-Trump and/or anti-Clinton rhetoric.

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS…Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL! Breaking News.” “IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined.”

These sensationalized headlines, likely created by teenagers in Velles, Macedonia, were meant to act as clickbait, drawing readers to the fake-news websites.

By selling ads, these teens were able to bring in thousands of euros a day while living in a city where the average salary is 350 euros per month. By deceiving the American public, they successfully brought a “Digital Gold Rush” to the small city.

Some even argue that they had a large hand in swaying the presidential election in Trump’s favor, like Assistant Professor of Communication, Media and Culture Dr. Wendy Weinhold.

“I don’t know how a huge amount of fake news distributed with the intent to inform people with falsehood couldn’t have an influence,” said Weinhold. “If all it did was give people, whose minds were already made up, information that they could use to influence other people…and put just a seed of doubt in other people’s minds, then I don’t know how it couldn’t of had an influence.”

A Buzzfeed analysis concluded that in the 3 months leading up to the election, “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others.”

The analysis found that the top 20 fake stories generated 8,711,000 engagements while the 20 top true election stories generated 7,367,000 engagements. From the numbers, one could easily conclude that fake news was, at least, a serious problem throughout the election.

President Obama thought fake news to be a serious enough issue to mention in his farewell speech, calling fake news a threat to democracy.

“Increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there,” said Obama.

Customizable news has been a prevalent issue since Google News began allowing the ability for users to select preferences and is even more serious now with social media.

On Facebook and Twitter, users are able to, literally, pick and choose what they want to see. By giving the user the ability to add specific friends or to follow certain people or organizations, these social media sites are making it increasingly easier for the public to personalize their news.

“We had our local newspaper that arrived at our doorstep and we would have a conversation about it,” said Weinhold. “The really important thing was, these people…didn’t always agree with you…But today, particularly via fake news, we have the opportunity to surround ourselves with a bunch of people who agree with us and aren’t necessarily the best informed…There are huge consequences and huge costs to that kind of shifting of information and newly formed coffee shop online.”

Although fake news is extremely concerning, especially to those in the world of journalism, a recent study conducted by Gentzkow of Stanford University and Allcott of New York University found that, although the fake news stories favoring Trump far outnumbered those favoring Clinton, they did not have a “significant impact on the presidential election.”

The paper entitled, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election,” combined a 1200 person post-election survey, new web browsing data and a database the researchers created, that contained election stories that were declared fake by prominent fact-checking websites during the three months prior to the election.

Overall, the research found that television was the primary source for receiving political news and that the political impact of social media is overstated. According to the study, only 14 percent of Americans reported utilizing social media as a primary tool for gathering campaign news.

“In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of Americans,” the research states. “For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.”

Regardless of if the circulation of fake news influenced the 2016 Presidential Election or not, the issue is a serious one and should be viewed as such.

Fortunately, Facebook and Google removed the ability for ad-revenue in November of 2016, leaving many of those who once created the fake news without an incentive. Facebook has also planned for new policies and algorithms that will help to filter out the obviously misleading stories.

Hopefully, we, the American people, were able to learn from this election cycle and will know to be more skeptical next time around.

In the mean time, Dr. Weinhold explained that it is in the citizen’s hands to aid in debunking falsities.

If you’re going to be a good citizen, if you are going to be well informed, you have to do some work too,” said Weinhold. “It’s not just the journalist that has to do the work of informing, investigating, but you as the audience member, you as the citizen of the democratic nation that you are lucky to call home, also has a responsibility to be sure that you know who is informing you. The internet makes information extremely readily available but it also puts a lot of responsibility on each of us to do our homework as well.”

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