We seek to drink from the font of knowledge only the only spout is attached to a firehose. Being online can feel like a constant deluge of information that is impossible to keep up with and difficult to verify. We rely on knowledge and familiarity to help us filter which news story or post by a friend we choose to interact with. While less stressful than checking up on every story, we end up relying on our biases to make decisions about what we have read. Social media has sped up this process as Erin Tucker discovered in 2016 when he tweeted a picture of what he interpreted to be buses full of people brought in to protest Donald Trump’s campaign in Austin, TX (Maheshwari 2016). His photo was shared by his few followers and then thousands of times. Except the buses were not associated with the protest and Mr. Tucker hadn’t seen anyone get on or off. This incident is a comparatively benign example of fake news, a half-truth with an unfounded interpretation that is then shared among people and the false information is treated as fact.
The more malignant version is when fake news is produced for money. In Tbilisi, Georgia (the country), Beqa Latsabidze capitalized on Americans’ hunger for partisan politics by creating a website that mixed real and fake stories that praised Trump and defamed Hillary Clinton. Mr. Latsabidze and others like him see what they are doing as “Infotainment.” He was “amazed that anyone could mistake many of the articles [they] post for real news, insisting [the stories] are simply a form of infotainment that should not be taken too seriously” (Higgins, McIntire, and Dance 2016). I question Mr. Latsabidze’s genuineness in this statement. Particularly because “fake news” and “infotainment” have been around for a long time but better known as tabloids/yellow journalism and satire news respectively. Mr. Latsabidze’s output resembles if someone put stories from the National Enquirer and the New York Times together and then said they were the Onion.
The Onion is perhaps the most well known “print” satire news at the time of writing. It is known that it is satire and “understanding where the paper comes from… adds to our ability to discriminate likely legitimate stores from actual fakes” (Rubin 2019:1018). It is hard to trust what you read at a glance when the stories have been aggregated or shared via social media. You may not know the origin of a story, only seeing the headline, and interpret a more important meaning than the satire, tabloid, or click-bait title should have been given. So while “fake news” has been around for a long time, social media has made it more difficult to determine what is the genuine article (Mihailidis and Viotty 2017, Timmer 2017, Rubin 2019). This has lead to an increase in calls for better media literacy among the populace.
Social media places many blocks to media literacy as a matter of its nature. The chain of hyperlinks can be longer than a user wants to spend on an article they have a passing interest in reading (Mihailidis and Viotty 2017). A shared link can have your friend’s impression instead of a subheading or opening sentence in the post. The companies that run the platforms can be affected by financial interest to allow particular behaviors to occur (Timmer 2017, Rubin 2019). As with Mr. Latsabidze above, income for these platforms comes from ad revenue so there is motivation to post stories that will obtain clicks. Sensationalist headlines designed to attract clicks can be simple click-bait (Rubin 2019) or it can appeal to people with a conspiracy mentality (Landrum and Olshanksy 2019). The issue of “fake news” isn’t limited to politics. Scientific reports can suffer from false information being dispersed when that information supports a person’s world view (Landrum and Olshanksy 2019). Scientific literacy is as important as media literacy but most research has gated access, creating fertile ground in conspiratorial minds. The current state of online access leaves academics in an ivory-walled garden that others cannot enter. If we wish to tackle “fake news” our knowledge should be as open as we ask their minds to be.
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- Higgins, Andrew, Mike McIntire, and Gabriel J. X. Dance. 2016. “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’.” The New York Times. Retrieved December 12, 2019 (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/world/europe/fake-news-donald-trump-hillary-clinton-georgia.html).
- Maheshwari, Sapna. 2016. “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The New York Times. Retrieved December 12, 2019 (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html).
- Landrum, Asheley R., and Alex R. Olshansky. 2019. “The Role of Conspiracy Mentality in Denial of Science and Susceptibility to Viral Deception about Science.” Politics and The Life Sciences 38(2):193–209.
- Mihailidis, Paul and Samantha Viotty. 2017. “Spreadable Spectacle in Digital Culture: Civic Expression, Fake News, and the Role of Media Literacies in ‘Post-Fact’ Society.” American Behavioral Scientist 61(4):441–54.
- Rubin, Victoria L. 2019. “Disinformation and Misinformation Triangle.” Journal of Documentation 75(5):1013–34.
- Timmer, Joel. 2017.”Fighting Falsity: Fake News, Facebook, and the First Amendment,” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 35(3):669-706