It is impossible to ignore the central role which social media platforms now play in our modern and digitally-connected world. In fact, you have most likely used social media recently in some form and you’ve probably clocked significant hours on popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat within the last week.
Lots of people spend many hours per day scrolling through news feeds, looking at Instagram pictures and watching Snapchat stories. Social media is quickly becoming the primary means by which people find news and information and it is no surprise, given that Facebook’s and Twitter’s audience in the UK is 40 and 20 million respectively.
Unfortunately, it is widely recognised that social media is playing an increasingly important role in the daily lives of everybody across the globe, and there are plenty of people ready to take advantage of the trust people place in social media.
Fake news is not just a soundbite dreamt up by the likes of Donald Trump to paint the media in a negative light, it is actually a real and serious problem which plagues social media platforms relentlessly.
One of the biggest issues facing the digital era is fake news, but what is it? Fake news, generally, is content which is created with deliberate factual inaccuracies and exaggerated stories, in order to mislead people and drum up anger or spread stories to promote the author’s interests.
It is something which has spread like wildfire since the establishment of social media and its growth in popularity; social media is a platform on which fake news stories can easily be disseminated to a massive audience who are willing to eat it up and take it as fact.
According to analysis from Facebook itself, fake news stories were engaged with more and gathered a more powerful response than the leading news stories from almost 20 leading news outlets during the peak of the US Presidential Election in 2016.
Spinning, lies and misinformation have been around since the dawn of journalism, but fake news is an entirely different beast. Because of social media’s unique algorithms and their relationship with advertising systems, there is no shortage of people prepared to whip up some falsified stories and target a gullible audience to make some quick cash.
By the end of the 2016 US Presidential Election, fake news had become something of a tsunami and had clear, resonating impacts. It was not just social spam anymore, but political clickbait used to lure millions of Facebook and Twitter users into sharing provocative lies in a bid to make some quick and easy cash.
Some of the more famous ‘political clickbait’ fake news stories include claims that the Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton had sold weapons to the so-called Islamic State and that Pope Francis had endorsed Republican candidate Donald Trump.
All of this fake news was circulating through a network of social media outlets which allowed partisan attacks and propaganda to spread uncontrollably. But, because many people are willing to take things at face value without critical analysis, it worked.
This sort of behaviour is nothing new, but we now live in a world of elaborate technologies with unprecedented ecosystems and infrastructures, which allow the easy creating, uploading, commenting, sharing and spreading of manipulative and falsified stories on a global scale to a global audience, like never before.
Solutions to this problem are not so clear-cut; it is not a simple fix. Even if the algorithms and artificial intelligence behind social media could filter out fake news and fabricated stories with complete accuracy – but they can’t and probably never will – we still cannot force people to think critically and deduce when something is falsified themselves.
If it is not something which social media engineers are able to solve, then what can be done? The current solution to the widespread fake news problem starts with you, us, the users of social media.
Social media training is one of the best solutions to the current fake news problem. By teaching people to fact-check articles with reputable sources of information, teaching media literacy and helping people understand how to recognize bias and falsified information on their own, we can take a great step in reducing the impact and hold which fake news currently has.
Users of social media should be helped to evaluate and critically analyse what they are seeing. Facebook has taken steps to help promote this, and in August of 2017, they announced that publishers now have the option to display their logos beside their headlines. This is important because people are generally less likely to remember or even know the source of a news story when they read about it through social media.
Spotting fake news is not the easiest thing to do, but it is not impossible either. A basic level of social media training can go a long way to help users of social media spot and disregard fake news stories, or stories with deliberately falsified information.
A good social media training program will first make its participants aware of fake news, the many forms it can take, the problems it causes and then how to spot it. When faced with a piece of information which could be falsified or fake news, social media users should ask themselves the following questions –
· Are other reputable news sites publishing the story?
· Does the publisher’s website have a proper website domain?
· Is the source known to be shady?
· Are its other stories sensical and non-incredulous?
Generally speaking, if it is an outlandish story which appears to be trying to drum up anger, spread a hateful message or just has a plain weird headline which is unusually strange or hard to believe, it is probably fake news.