Photo (CC) by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos
Photo (CC) by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

One particular story getting a lot of social media attention after the end of the election last week is fake news, and how it may have greatly influenced and possibly even decided the results. BuzzFeed recently released an in-depth study which found that viral fake news stories were actually found to be shared more times on Facebook during the last leg of the election than real news. Think about that for a moment: in the last months of the election, when many undecided voters were being swayed in one direction or another, many Americans were reading (and sharing) predominantly completely falsified stories such as these top three performers:

  • “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 And It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined”

According to BuzzFeed’s method, they surveyed the top shared stories in the final three months of the campaign, and found that the top 20 authentic news stories got 7,367,000 shares/reactions/comments on Facebook, whereas the top 20 fake news stories got 8,711,000 (over a million more engagements).

Screenshot from web.
Screenshot from web.

So just who are the people writing these stories? Well the Washington Post was actually able to interview one named Paul Horner, a 38-year-old fake news kingpin who has created an “empire” of sorts, garnering an unthinkable income from publishing hundreds of fabricated articles that get picked up on Facebook, Google and other platforms. He started putting out Trump-centric faux stories as a kind of a joke, because as he described it Trump supporters “never fact-check anything.” Yet those articles began taking off, even getting shares from people like Corey Lewandowski (ex-campaign manager for Trump) and Eric Trump. As he explained:

 “I can write the craziest thing about Trump, and people will believe it. I wrote a lot of crazy anti-Muslim stuff — like about Trump wanting to put badges on Muslims, or not allowing them in the airport, or making them stand in their own line — and people went along with it!”

So it seems that the root of the issue lies less in people making these fake news stories to “troll” online, and more in the media and Trump’s constituency failing to effectively fact check Trump’s outrageous claims (because the sentiment generally was if the statement was off-kilter and if it was attributed to Trump then he most likely said it).

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerburg responded to the accusations that the sharing of these news stories decided the election by asserting that there was simply no way it could have had that much of an influence. At the Techonomy conference in California last week he said this:

“I do think there is a certain profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is they saw some fake news.”

Facebook and Google have been trying very hard to somehow thwart the proliferation of these clickbait stories but it is quite difficult, even with ad-blocking technology. Facebook and Google responded to the growing accusations that their reckless disregard may have led to a Trump presidency early this week by announcing they would be cutting off ad access that these fake news sites use to post their content on Facebook. But as Horner stated in his interview with the Post, while that would lose him quite a bit of money, he could easily find a way around it by “getting hooked up under different names and sites.”

In the end the problem is more insidious and all-encompassing than even the tech companies know how to handle at the moment, and it has a real toll on American politics. The greatest threat to our democratic system is an uninformed and misinformed electorate – if they do not possess the right tools to make a fact-based decision about the leader of our country, that completely erodes our electoral process.

 

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