Just days after the US election, which saw Donald Trump win an unexpected victory, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was on the defensive after complaints surfaced over the spread of fake news on the social media platform. Several political analysts argued that the fake and inaccurate posts played a pivotal role in the election outcome which Zuckerberg denied..“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way—I think is a pretty crazy idea,” said Zuckerberg. However, this denial didn't last long and Zuckerberg has since announced plans for Facebook to crack down on fake news. In fact, Facebook now allows users to report posts for being 'fake news.'
What is 'Fake News?'
While this may sound fairly straightforward, 'fake news,' as it has been called by the media, is very broad and can relate to any form of messaging online that is inaccurate and designed to mislead. We aren't talking about CNN posting a news story claiming the price of oil has dropped to $30 a barrel when it actually only dropped to $34. No, that is just called a mistake and poor journalistic standards. Instead, we are talking about online posts that are deliberately created using false or misleading information and spread in an effort to influence opinions. This 'news' can be in the form of an advertisement, blog, online post, tweet, meme, video etc. and can be posted by either an individual or group. While 'fake news' can in theory be shared almost anywhere, it has been increasingly seen on social media channels.
What's The Big Deal?
Now, before you start thinking 'so what, it's only social media and nobody takes it seriously anyways,' consider this: During the 2016 US election campaign, well over $1 billion was spent on online advertising with the bulk of it going toward social media advertising in particular (this was especially true with the Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns.) Why did they spend so much online you ask? The reason might have something to do with how Americans get their news...
Approximately 80% of North American adults regularly use social media while 50% of people aged 49 and under get their news primarily from online sources such as Facebook and Twitter. Combine this with the ability to target very specific audiences and the fact that online advertising is significantly cheaper than traditional methods, it's no surprise that platforms such as Facebook have become so popular for spreading political messages, both real and fake.
The Political Impact
With up to half of the population receiving what they believe to be their 'news' from social media, it becomes very clear just how influential and potentially dangerous these platforms can be. As mentioned, a major reason fake news is spread is to influence public opinion which can have massive consequences to the political process. In fact, most political decisions stem from public opinions and how the general population feels about certain issues. Take for example 'Brexit,' a British referendum that will almost certainly lead to Britain leaving the EU and possibly the ultimate collapse of the EU entirely. The referendum was largely controversial and driven by an anti-immigration movement that was empowered by social media. While it's nearly impossible to determine if fake news on immigration played a significant role in the outcome, many have speculated that it certainly did. Even here in Canada I am seeing countless social media posts on the same issue that are completely false and being treated as facts. Below are three viral posts that I was able to find within 10 minutes of being on Facebook:
Extremely offensive and you guessed it, false. Immigrants receive the same income assistance as Canadian Citizens as determined by the provincial government. I live in BC where a family with 2 children receive slightly more than $100 each or approx %75 less than stated in the post. However, even if it was $400 a month that's not even a third of the cost of monthly childcare (Canadian average: $1,300+).
Once again, extremely offensive and false. Since its independence, the country of Syria has had a Muslim majority which remains steady today with approx. 90% of the country. The problem with posts like this is that most people are unaware of religious beliefs around the world and could be easily influenced to believe incorrect claims. Also probably good to mention that there isn't an 'official religion' in Canada.
As silly as this post sounds, it still sends a negative message that the PM isn't doing anything besides taking selfies. While it may be less offensive than the other two memes, it's still not accurate. It's irrelevant how many selfies Trudeau has taken even if that could actually be measured, which it can't. More importantly, despite the downturn in Alberta, Canada has still seen an increase of over 180,000 jobs in the past year.
The Problem of Repetition
Now, some of you may still be wondering how posts such as these can really influence public opinions and ultimately political decisions. The simplest answer is repetition and the power of social media. The second example shown above has been shared over 7,000 times alone. Assuming a minimum of 80 people saw each share, we have a total of 560,000+ views just like that. It probably took one person less than 5 minutes using Windows Paint to create the message and yet this fake post has been viewed by over half a million people in a matter of weeks. Here lies the problem. Regardless if the information is real or fake it can spread so quickly over social media and begin to create dangerous fallacies. The average person will probably not believe just one post but when repetitively exposed to similar lies and incorrect information it becomes easier and easier to start believing the message. This is even more true when it comes to larger fake news stories that are well-written and appear legitimate. Take the below post for example. At first glance it's from a site called the Daily Presser which writes full length articles that appear trustworthy. Unfortunately, Daily Presser is an extremely illigitimate source that posts entirely fictional articles that align with their radical right-winged values.
Still skeptical? Just think of how many times even us Canadians have heard the argument that Obama wasn't born in American. It's an absurd argument based on absolutely no facts and yet it has been spread for years and had an audience of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. The outcome: a 2016 poll of Republicans revealed that 41% believe that Obama wasn't born in America... Just think about that for a second, 41 per cent still think that their president of 8 years isn't an American citizen. These millions of people then cast ballots, make decisions, and take action based on the idea that their president isn't American. There is really endless possibilities for how fallacies such as this can alter politics in ways we haven't seen before. See the problem now?
I could truly go on all day with examples of how fake information is altering our perspectives and greatly changing the political landscape but then this would just be another boring online rant. So, in the age where smart meters give you headaches, humans use only 10% of their brains, and vaccines cause autism, I'll leave you with some words of wisdom from Abraham Lincoln: