One of the most prominent stories to come out of Donald Trump’s election is the proliferation of what has come to be known as “fake news.” While the term itself is rather hard to define depending on who you talk to—there are those who now consider any mainstream media to be “fake news”—the spreading of demonstrable falsehoods via social media appears to be a phenomenon that shows no signs of going away anytime soon.
Whether the abundance of bogus news that arose during the election season was meant to sway the weak-of-mind or purely to generate ad revenue, one conclusion is inescapable: Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels played a pivotal role in disseminating the false content. Considering a majority of American adults are on Facebook, and two-thirds of Facebook users get their news from the site, the potential impact of fake news is clear, and troubling.
Even Pope Francis has chimed in. And, no, not in regard to the fake story “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump,” which had no factual basis. In an interview with the Belgian Catholic weekly Tertio, the pontiff slammed media organizations for focusing on scandals and promoting phony news. He even went so far as to compare such behavior to coprophilia, an abnormal pleasure in feces and defecation.
In early December a few weeks after the election, fake news provoked one man into firing an assault-style rifle in a kid-friendly pizza place in Washington, D.C. The shooter (luckily, no one was harmed) drove from North Carolina to Comet Ping Pong to free children allegedly held captive as part of a pedophilia ring linked to Hillary Clinton.
The unfounded rumor which the shooter was acting on—that sexually abused children were being held captive in the pizzeria’s basement—was tweeted more than 6,000 times, quickly spread on other social media channels, and was repeated by far-right talk-show host Alex Jones. But there were no captive children. There was no pedophilia ring. There was not even a basement. And Hillary Clinton was most definitely not involved.
Google, too, has been criticized, for elevating fake news in its search results. Business Insider reported that recent changes in Google’s algorithm rewards search results based on the likelihood a user will click on them. As a result, user behavior influences how content is ranked. And frequently, widely shared fake news stories benefit from the ranking algorithm. Google’s algorithm also elevated bogus news in its “In the news” section, which since has been discontinued.
How can fake news even be legal?
Quite simply, there is no legal obligation to tell the truth. We are free to lie to each other, and to spread falsehoods. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression, which includes news stories, even if false. Only if the fake news strays into defamation—a false statement purporting to be fact that damages another person’s reputation—then legal action can be taken.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Derigan Silver, a professor of media, First Amendment and Internet law at the University of Denver, noted the debate on freedom of expression may be evolving.
“One of the ideas behind the First Amendment is that we believe in something called the marketplace of ideas: that if you let ‘truthhood’ and falsity battle in the marketplace of ideas, that truth will eventually win, that we have an assumption that people are rational, and they can determine truth from falsity,” he said. However, Silver added, “Are we in a situation now where truth no longer matters, and people are not able to sort these things out?”
Internet giants respond
Facebook and Google are now trying to deter the spread of fake news. Facebook’s response began with staffers forming an unofficial task force to address the problem. Then Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who had initially rejected the idea that fake news could sway voters, had a change of heart, and on December 15, Facebook announced several policy changes, most notably that it will use external fact-checkers to review news stories users flag as fake.
If the fact-checkers concur, Facebook will tag the item as “Disputed by 3rd Parties,” letting users know that independent fact-checkers have deemed the story unreliable. Google, meanwhile, has not only removed fake news from its news feed, it is tackling the profitability of fake news sites by banning such sites from using its online advertising service.
And Slate has created a Chrome extension called “This is Fake,” which identifies fabricated news in Facebook feeds and enables users to alert their friends when they share a fake news story. The Slate tool, however, is not dependent on an algorithm; Slate staffers moderate a list of reputable news sources, which they update based on the “This is Fake” data collected.
These actions might help, but there’s still a burden on social media users to cast a critical eye on what they choose to disseminate. When sharing stories is as easy as the click of an icon, collective responsibility for the accuracy of what we send is the best defense against misinformation.