Fake news got real this weekend after a North Carolina man brandished and fired a rifle in a Washington, D.C. pizza shop. No one was injured or killed, but 28-year-old shooter Edgar Maddison Welch of Salisbury, North Carolina told police he came to “self-investigate” an internet conspiracy theory that suggested Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta** were involved in a child sex ring run out of the restaurant Comet Ping Pong.
The conspiracy — dubbed #Pizzagate — has been thoroughly debunked, but hasn’t stopped high-profile conservatives from promoting the story. Michael G. Flynn Jr., the son and former aide to retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn — who was appointed to lead the NSA under the Trump administration — was fired from Trump’s transition team after he tweeted that the story hadn’t been proven false. That tweet followed one from the elder Flynn containing a link to other dubious claims regarding Clinton.
The rise of fake news might be one of the lasting legacies of the 2016 election, unless the sites that help it spread take steps to quell its expansion. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter share some of the blame, but so do digital journalists and the media at large.
The industry proliferated over the last decade with an infusion of digital-only, niche sites varying in scope and standards as news organizations scrambled to adapt to consumers’ increasing desire for online content at the start of President Barack Obama’s first term. The shift created congestion, and with so much noise online, it was inevitable for readers to tune out, choosing to trust “news” sources based on the message they liked most, rather than facts.
“The truth can go in any direction: It can support what you believe, people you like, it can offend, it can reveal things about people you would rather not know about, or make you uncomfortable.”
Facebook has prided itself on letting users drive its content and determine what events or news are most relevant via its infamous algorithm. The site once employed a small editorial staff who helped curate its Trending Topics, the area on the homepage that shows the top news stories being discussed. But the social network fired all of its human curators shortly after a Gizmodo article suggested the site had an anti-conservative news bias when it came to selecting which stories to promote. The allegations galvanized conservative voters and politicians, and Facebook decided to rely solely on its algorithm to feature newsworthy stories. The move has been largely unsuccessful, with false stories frequently featured as Trending Topics based on how many users are interacting with them.
Conveniently, that’s also a better way to make money. Facebook — and digital media overall — rely on users’ clicks to fuel an ad revenue business that rivals only Google. And until recently, fabricated or unverified stories was a part of that.
After an onslaught of criticism for downplaying the effects of fake news and dismissing his site’s culpability, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the site would crack down on the spread of fake news with more robust reporting and detection tools, including a third-party verification process.
While Zuckerberg’s plan is still in the works, it may not go far enough, since Facebook has already bestowed their blue check mark upon dozens of pages belonging to fake news sites such as InfoWars and Politics Insider, essentially lending legitimacy to their content, boosting their reach by favorably weighting the algorithm, and allowing them to build huge audiences reaching into the millions.
It’s unclear if Facebook’s new policies would remove the verified badges from online publications which are already verified yet known to promote slanted or unsubstantiated content. (Facebook didn’t return requests for comment on its verification process for publications.)
“The more you fire people up with fear — we saw that on both sides in this election — the more likely people are going to look for information that reaffirms their world views.”
The problem, however, is bigger than Facebook. Yes, nearly half of American adults use social network to get their news, but the ever expanding digital media world is also at fault. Digital-only publications with Congressional press credentials make up 37 percent of the Washington press gallery — a 32 percent jump from 2009 to 2014. That growth led to a 20 percent increase in digital revenue, which in turn motivated traditional and new media organizations to make headlines more punchy (see: clickbait). Fold in blogs, native ads, and the proliferation of bogus news sites that host content with false information to chase clicks and ad revenue, and there’s a recipe for confusion.
The problem is so bad, one study found, that students were unable to differentiate between story headlines from legitimate news organizations and fake ones. PC Magazine’s reporters had a similarly challenging experience parsing facts-only news from misleading takes. On Sunday, what started as a harmless exercise of free speech on social media resulted in ongoing death threats and a criminal shooting at a pizza shop, with passive endorsement of a conspiracy theory from high-ranking officials. It is proof that fabricated, misinformed, or propaganda-laden news has tangible consequences.
The ‘different species’ of fake news
Over three presidential election cycles, social media use among American adults skyrocketed nine times over, from 7 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. The number of digital news organizations has spiked as well, with many established journalists abandoning long-revered publications such as the Washington Post for digital-only shops. That shift has given consumers a plethora of online sources of news — and little guidance on how to tell what’s real, slanted, or completely fake.
“Trust in news has been declining for decades,” said Deen Freelon, an associate communication studies professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “Part of this has been an attempt by Republicans and some liberals to blame media for bias. But how do we define fake news? It’s important for us to distinguish the different species.”
Freelon said some sites publish stories wherein “pieces of it are true, and that can muddy the waters making it difficult to dismiss them offhand. And when stories by reputable news sources are incorrect, or given credence because they are repeated by people in power, they’re carrying forth information that is, at best, dubiously sourced because someone in power said it,” often without a lot of context judging from a headline.
One example. In late 2012, the Daily Caller published the first in a series of articles alleging Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) paid two prostitutes for sex while in the Dominican Republic. The story was a complete fabrication, but the Daily Caller’s ceaseless coverage contained enough nuggets of truth to give the rest of the story an air of legitimacy: Menendez did take lavish trips—including to the Dominican Republic—with wealthy donor Salomon Melgen, and failed to declare them as gifts.
“The truth is difficult. It’s hard to deal with when the truth can go in any direction. It can support what you believe, people you like; it can offend, it can reveal things about people you would rather not know about, or make you uncomfortable,” Freelon said. “Sometimes people you don’t like have better facts.”
“It taxes the average person’s ability to tell what’s real and what’s not. I think it taxes people’s critical faculties to the point where they throw their hands up and they fall back on confirmation bias.”
That mental exhaustion makes it easier for readers to swallow dubious or misleading headlines in their social media feeds. Then the habit forms: “Consume the information that makes you feel most comfortable, and anytime someone says something you don’t like, call them biased,” said Freelon.
Comfort in fake news
The explosion in online content allows consumers to skip the news they don’t like and click on the content that makes them feel good.
“At the very basic level, they are making choices in a very different way than they used to when media was limited to a small number of channels,” said Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist and researcher in Newport Beach, California. “When you have those kind of choices, people react in different ways, people choose news that reaffirms their world values.”
“The more you fire people up with fear — we saw that on both sides in this election — the more likely people are going to look for information that reaffirms their world views. You need to be right because you’re scared.”
And consumers don’t necessarily consider those stories that confirm their beliefs to be fake. “Those who are against [President Barack] Obama, would find a story questioning his citizenship agreeable because they have negative associations,” and are willing to ignore facts or a contradictory story “because it didn’t agree with their worldview.”
Add that to the fear factor that was present in high doses during the 2016 election, and you have a recipe for consumers to dig into their preconceived notions about the world.
“When you get people scared, people retreat from opposing views,” Rutledge said. “The more you fire people up with fear — we saw that on both sides in this election — the more likely people are going to look for information that reaffirms their world views. You need to be right because you’re scared. You want to be able to control that uncertainty.”
Fear and rationality utilize two different parts of the brain, Rutledge said. “That drives how people seek out news and why they’re willing to believe things that if you look at the logic of it don’t make any sense at all.”
Making news human again
Fake news isn’t a new problem and it likely won’t go away on its own, but solving it won’t be simple.
“Part of the issue we have to deal with does involve Facebook, because their algorithm decides what people consume, and people aren’t consuming news on their own terms. Facebook is privileging news from sources with tenuous relationships with the truth,” Freelon said.
“You can’t prevent people from consuming fake news but you can make it so that when they do it, it’s willingly and with fair warning.”
“Facebook has tried to have it both ways by making the editorial decision that [the company’s employees] aren’t responsible for what people consume but depend on that consumption” for ad revenue, he continued.
In a perfect world, Freelon said, Facebook would “commit to publishing content seeking the truth, correcting stories when they are incorrect, and downplaying those that don’t.” But that counters Facebook’s current business model, and would likely require the company to take an active role in what links and stories are pushed up by its algorithm.
The answer to fake news’ persistence will likely be a crowdsourced effort with consumers, fact-checking organizations, and journalists vetting news through its source — checking to see if a domain is new, or a site is underdeveloped, Freelon said.
Developers have already launched a browser extension in the wake of Facebook’s fake news scandal. The Chrome plugin “Fake News Alert” flags sites that could be hoaxes, satire, or questionably sourced, based on a now-viral list of sites Merrimack College communications professor Melissa Zimdars compiled for her students.
“Removing the burden from the individual to crowdsourcing the veracity of sites would be incredibly helpful,” said Freelon. “You can’t prevent people from consuming fake news, but you can make it so that when they do it, it’s willingly and with fair warning.”
And while the sheer volume of media wears on consumers’ ability to decipher fact from fiction, from analysis, or from opinion, Rutledge believes traditional news organizations can help.
“Humanize people on all sides of these stories,” she said. “It’s really easy to make an ‘other’ class of people — immigrants or bankers, people see them as the same things.”
“What this election has done is raise the issue everywhere. That works in favor of the traditional news sites because they have legitimacy,” she said. Referring to her students, “I have kids who cite Wikipedia as an official source because they’ve never been taught to think about how these things are created.”
**Disclosure: John Podesta founded the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent project of the Center for American Project Action Fund, CAP’s sister organization.