“Fake News” – an overview of how it starts and spreads.

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

Go Public, Write A Novel

Coinciding with the rise of social media, public sociology as an explicitly designated discipline is relatively new.  Its purpose is to bring the “publics” into the discussions regarding social issues and research that impact them. In turn, non-academic audiences gain information about what academics have learned and can be motivated towards social and political activism thereby contributing to the body of knowledge. Over the last decade, social media has allowed sociologists to reach wider audiences and for those audiences to interact in kind. But it may not be enough.

Kieran Healy gives three aspects of social media that facilitates public sociology. It is easier to share your work with others, to be seen and converse in “real-time” or “shifted” via comments and replies, and to measure engagement by counting reactions, comments, shares, etc. (Healy 2017:771). The second aspect is essential to the “public” part of public sociology; the ability of the public to interact regardless of the original poster still monitoring their post. The downside is as your impact grows you become a larger target for harassment from those who disagree with or dislike what you post. Additionally, the desire to measure engagement can be problematic. Academic institutions can easily track and rank the intellectual output of their employees since these measures lead to knowledge about what works on social media. Unfortunately, Academics are not being rewarded by their institutions if their online work successfully reaches and grows an audience. Amy Schalet (2016) points out in her article, “Should writing for the public count toward tenure?” that what does count is publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals or books through university presses. This latter point is an opening to another tactic public sociology can take, fiction writing.

Don’t consider yourself creative enough? Consider how creatives have found similar success and problems on social media as academics have. The Web has removed gates for many who wish to share their works, leading to a proliferation of fine art and storytelling. It has also allowed for an intersection between creative and academic works.  Ben Wellington’s I Quant NY blog, combines his skills as a data analyst with his interests in city planning and improv comedy to write articles on infrastructure data that people actually read. He explains in a TEDx talk that it was his capacity for storytelling that drew attention from people and city institutions (TEDx Talks 2015).  However, storytelling can be difficult when the story is on-going and dynamic, as is often the case for the socially relevant stories sociologist want to tell. Fiction is not so constrained since it can have an end even if it’s not “the end.”

Literary fiction has been telling us stories relevant to their day for generations. Larry Isaac (2009) illuminates novel writing as part of social movements’ cultural productions. Labor Problem Novels were popular enough in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to be a subgenre of their own. “This process of genre differentiation changed literary cultural stock in ways that provided new materials for class-based understandings of the world” (Isaac 2009:958). But a single story is more a reflection of the culture or attitudes from one group than an implement of social change. It is the collection of cultural output and their diffusion through society can push social change (Inglis 1938, Albrecht 1954, Savci 2006). Research from the last few decades suggests that cultural diffusion is not reliant on social elites and has more to do with our social networks and surrounding socializing forces, such as media (Strang and Meyer 1993, Pierotti 2013, Schwadel and Garneu 2014). Perhaps the proliferation of media is even the cause of this. Gabriel and Young (2011) demonstrated how reading narrative stories can provide a connection to fictional social identities. When surveyed afterward, readers had self-associations with either wizards or vampires depending on if they read Harry Potter or Twilight.

Public sociology should make use of the connections people form with fiction. Some university presses have imprints for fiction publishing. It is not enough for sociologists to put their works out into the world; they must be read and be popularly diffused.  When you think you are going to write the next “Outsiders,” write “The Outsiders” instead.

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  • Albrecht, Milton C. 1954. “The Relationship of Literature and Society.” American Journal of Sociology 59(5):425–36.
  • Gabriel, Shira and Ariana F. Young. 2011. “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten.” Psychological Science 22(8):990–94.
  • Healy, Kieran. 2017. “Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media.” Perspectives on Politics 15(3):771–80.
  • Inglis, Ruth A. 1938. “An Objective Approach to the Relationship Between Fiction and Society.” American Sociological Review 3(4):526–33.
  • Isaac, Larry. 2009. “Movements, Aesthetics, and Markets in Literary Change: Making the American Labor Problem Novel.” American Sociological Review 74(6):938–65.
  • Pierotti, Rachael S. 2013. “Increasing Rejection of Intimate Partner Violence.” American Sociological Review 78(2):240–65.
  • Savci, Evren. 2006. “Forging the Tools for Literary Content: Reflection Theory vs. Cultural Logic.” Conference Papers — American Sociological Association, 1. http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,url,cookie,uid&db=sih&AN=26642280&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
  • Schalet, Amy. 2019. “Should Writing for the Public Count toward Tenure?” The Conversation. Retrieved November 25, 2019 (https://theconversation.com/should-writing-for-the-public-count-toward-tenure-63983).
  • Schwadel, Philip and Christopher R. H. Garneau. 2017. “The Diffusion of Tolerance: Birth Cohort Changes in the Effects of Education and Income on Political Tolerance.” Sociological Forum 32(4):748–69.
  • Strang, David and John W. Meyer. 1993. “Institutional Conditions for Diffusion.” Theory and Society 22(4):487–511.
  • TEDx Talks. 2015. “Making Data Mean More through Storytelling | Ben Wellington | TEDxBroadway.” YouTube. Retrieved November 25, 2019 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xsvGYIxJok).
  • Vezzali, Loris, Sofia Stathi, and Dino Giovannini. 2012. “Indirect Contact through Book Reading: Improving Adolescents Attitudes and Behavioral Intentions toward Immigrants.” Psychology in the Schools 49(2):148–62.