The sharing of the news online
The dawn of social media has irrevocably changed what the news media are and how they inform the public. It has also significantly impacted the way the public consumes daily news stories. Of the many transformative components of social media that have touched and affected society at nearly every level, there is one such aspect that has probably shaken up the news media most of all: the share button.
By having the ability to share specific news stories from a wide variety of sources to their own personal profiles, Facebook users can do what used to be done solely by newspaper editors. Users can choose what story is important for their followers to see, what social movement deserves attention, what celebrity should be talked about and what article is most entertaining.
The problem with giving average social media users the power of newspaper editors to comb through stories and select the most “worthy” is that social media users’ livelihoods do not depend on accuracy. Someone’s uncle is not going to be sued for libel or defamation if he shares a story about Tom Cruise that turns out to be a hoax. Worst of all, it is these kinds of stories, without any basis in truth, which often garner the most buzz on the Internet.
Inaccurate news stories are not a new problem for the news media, but there is reason to believe the problem is growing. According to a BuzzFeed News analysis, fake news stories in 2017 received more engagement on Facebook than in 2016.
In the same article, BuzzFeed listed the top fifty fake news stories of 2017, ranked in order of “engagements,” which include likes, reactions and shares. The fake stories that generated the most engagements reveal society’s fascination with the depraved and the disturbing. In the top ten headlines alone, two involved somebody getting “stuck” inside another person’s vagina, two involved severed penises and two involved somebody dying.
These bizarre headlines illuminate the extremely dangerous power of hoaxes and the websites that spread them. However, this issue encompasses more than patently fake news. When reputable news sources unwittingly publish inaccurate information, the falsehoods can spread through Facebook and Twitter like wildfire under the aegis of authoritative journalism.
In December of 2017, Glenn Greenwald published a story for The Intercept titled, “The U.S. Media Suffered its Most Humiliating Debacle in History and Now Refuses All Transparency Over What Happened.” The humiliating debacle Greenwald is referencing involves a claim made by CNN reporter Manu Raju that Wikileaks had tipped off the Trump campaign in early September about leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee which Wikileaks had yet to make public. Greenwald writes, “As CNN sees the world, this would prove collusion between the Trump family and WikiLeaks and, more importantly, between Trump and Russia, since the U.S. intelligence community regards WikiLeaks as an ‘arm of Russian intelligence,’ and therefore, so does the U.S. media.”
This supposed bombshell story, presented by CNN as the “smoking gun” that categorically implicated Trump with the Kremlin, quickly gained traction on the Internet, causing other major outlets like MSNBC and CBS to publish their own stories affirming that Wikileaks had given Trump a tip-off in order to give the candidate the edge over Hillary Clinton.
Aside from these major outlets, several Democratic pundits, and even a California congressman posted links to the story on their social media accounts.
There was one major problem: The crux of the story was completely false. Raju wrote in his original article that the email the Trump campaign received was dated September 4, which would have been ten days before Wikileaks made the DNC’s emails public. In actuality, the email was dated September 14, a day after Wikileaks had already made the leaked emails public. Worse yet, the email’s sender, Michael J. Erikson, was not affiliated with Wikileaks at all, but was a “random person from the public,” as Greenwald writes.
By failing to perform the simplest of fact-checks, several mainstream media outlets disseminated information as untrue and harmful to the public as any common hoax or Internet rumour.
Greenwald further asserted that it was these mainstream outlets’ anti-Trump zeal that led to such an egregious mistake. What Greenwald seems to be referring to is a phenomenon called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias, or motivated reasoning, is defined by researchers of cultural cognition as the tendency of people to accept information that supports their preexisting worldview and beliefs, while rejecting information which challenges these things.
Confirmation bias may or may not be behind Raju publishing his erroneous Trump-Wikileaks story without proper fact-checking, but it certainly helps explains why it was shared so heavily.
Psychological research has shown that when well-informed readers are presented with information which affirms a worldview, they accept it as truth without assessing its accuracy. Furthermore, they are quick to reject information that confronts a worldview, even if it is based in solid evidence. Basically, a reader who strongly opposes Donald Trump will readily accept whatever criticisms a news outlet publishes about him; a Trump supporter is likely to read a pro-Trump article without objectively assessing the veracity of the arguments being made. The anti-Trump reader then shares an anti-Trump article, and the pro-Trump reader shares the pro-Trump article, whether or not either article is based in truth.
Clearly, human behavior combined with the culture of Internet sharing is a perfect storm for the dissemination of rumours, hoaxes and misinformation. Some have suggested that websites dedicated to fact-checking and debunking can help solve this problem. However, sites, which do this very task, such as Snopes and Politico, have been present on the Internet for years and yet the problem still remains.
In an email interview, Andrew Hunter, journalist and co-author of All Your Friends Like This: How Social Media Took Over the News, discussed the limitations of fact-checking sites: “We don’t think [it is possible for fact-checkers to receive as many shares as hoax sites do]. The story that something isn’t so is just not as compelling as the original. Generally the audience is not aware they are sharing or consuming misinformation, so it’s not a simple case of valuing the sensational above substance.”
Fixing this problem must start in the newsroom. Media across the board needs to shift away from their obsession with publishing a story first, and rededicate themselves to publishing a story only after it has been scrutinized for accuracy.
Fortunately, the Internet economy is evolving in a way that promotes the truth rather than devalues it. Websites once relied solely on advertising to make money, so they were incentivised to publish intriguing headlines (or “clickbait”) which would attract a high number of shares and “clicks.” Today, however, sites make money by building a loyal following of Internet consumers who will return to the sites on a weekly basis, subscribe, purchase merchandise, and attend live events hosted by the web-company. “With all these [new] kinds of monetization, the revenue is more closely associated with the reputation of the brand, and therefore there is more incentive to protect that reputation,” Hunter says.
Journalists do not have the power to change people’s fundamental, problematic behaviors like confirmation bias. They also do not have the ability to totally undo the damage done consistently by hoax sites. What journalists are capable of, though, is committing themselves to accuracy over speedy reporting and building a loyal following of readers that trust their dedication to the truth and not just their ideological leanings.
Owen Walsh is a third-year Journalism major who never forgets to use the plural form of “news media.” You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.