It’s not Facebook's fake news fail, it’s ours

  • Living
  • Sunday, 27 Nov 2016

Following Donald Trump’s shocking US presidential election victory – which really shows you just how much Americans like reality TV since they’ve now decided to give the genre a shot as government – there have been many theories about how he managed this upset.

More than a few articles have cited fake news, and Facebook, as helping to encourage many to vote for Trump. The social media site gets dragged into things because it is, shockingly, where 62% of Americans get their news. Right off their Facebook feed. Facebook is a great place to see what your neighbours are up to but not so great to use as a source of information.

But first, what is this fake news thing? Fake news is exactly what it sounds like, fake, uh, news. Usually it will come from a website that at first glance looks real enough but isn’t actually a news source. Real news – news that appears on news channels, in newspapers, magazines and their corresponding websites – is fact checked and sources of information are verified, and that means you can have a certain amount of trust in the information from these sources. But fake news is just a bunch of people whipping up headlines for reasons that can range from wanting to sway popular opinion or just because shocking, awful news gets more clicks than real boring news, and more clicks means money.

The whole fake news thing was so big that Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its word of the year. Post-truth is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. This is helped along by fake news – which has no basis in reality.

Now back to Facebook, which got dragged into this because of its role as entertainment and news source to so many Americans. Fake news went crazy on Facebook because people were reading headlines shared by friends that would appear in their feed. I’m sure you’ve seen these news items. You can read a bit of the article and get the gist without actually visiting the site. Which might help you discern whether or not to trust the article in the first place.

But Facebook was the perfect storm to whip people into a fake news frenzy because its algorithms would give people more fake news of the same type after they interacted with, or spent a particular amount of time on reading, the article. This algorithm is supposed to ensure that Facebook is giving us content we enjoy. For me, I get articles about diving or climbing because I’ve listed them as interests but for people who, for instance, believed that actor Denzel Washington was backing Trump – which was completely false – it meant they got more crazy news items that were equally false. Fake news items that were getting many more likes, shares and comments than real news items.

Mark Zuckerberg, the hoodie-wearing CEO of Facebook, initially came out and called the concern over fake news swaying the election a “crazy idea” and stated that fake news only amounts to about 1% of the posts on Facebook. But 1% of the posts on Facebook is a crazy amount of posts.

Zuckerberg has since changed his stance, outlining steps Facebook will take to curb fake news. But is it really Facebook’s fault that fake news got cycled around and around, understandably swaying voters in one direction or another?

No. It’s our fault. We’re supposed to think critically. And, as so many of Trump’s supporters like to think, they are thinking critically to question the status quo. I did the same thing in university, where like most liberal arts students, I was very left leaning. And I read (American philosopher) Noam Chomsky and (Canadian author and climate change activist) Naomi Klein and Antipode (the radical journal of geography). All of it whipped me up into a Liberal frenzy. Everything I read got me madder and madder – how could the world be like this! It was unfair!

And I would have sworn I was thinking critically then – but I realised later I couldn’t have been. Because, though I knew my side of the argument, I didn’t know the other sides well enough. Reading all the same viewpoints reaffirmed my beliefs over and over until I was so sure of the righteousness of them, no one would ever convince me otherwise.

And this is what Facebook has inadvertently done.

Its algorithm, designed to give people content they enjoy, delivers a flurry of posts that would perpetuate one-sided beliefs and strengthen them. Should people have gone out and read the other side’s opinions? Sure. But I suspect if you get the majority of your news from Facebook, you probably aren’t the proactive sort that would go out and find opposing viewpoints....

But we owe it to ourselves to seek out both sides of an argument before making a decision. That is how real critical thinking is done, not solely based on one viewpoint that’s been handed to us again and again so that we become so sure of our opinions that we no longer have any doubts about them.

Because doubt is the first step to critical thinking, and you have to doubt yourself sometimes, too. So I’ve been reading up on the Trump supporters’ side of things, trying to understand their viewpoint, and it’s helped me be able to say with more conviction that the next four years in US politics will probably have the train-wreck appeal of a reality TV show, and has a very good chance of being an actual train wreck.

Catch Jason Godfrey on The LINK on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).

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