Famed US President Abraham Lincoln once said that you shouldn’t always believe everything you read on the Internet—and he was right. Of course, the Internet wasn’t around during his time, so what did he know? To believe or not to believe, that is indeed the modern question.
On December 4th, a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, which was rumored to be used by Hillary Clinton as front for a child sex ring, was the target of a shooting. Why? A news article that was probably created as a joke was understood by some as truth and the shooter, Edgar Welch, drove in to save the day. Luckily, no one was hurt.
The idea of fake news has recently surged in awareness due to this tall tale and a variety of stories like it. Was this man’s confusion and violent response the total fault of fake news? Probably not. It seems more likely that the perpetrator had other issues, and if this story hadn’t set him off, something else would have done the trick.
Still, fake news is having an ever-increasing impact on our society and particularly on discussion of important issues—politics, religion, social issues, environment, etc. In the era of President Trump, it seems that one no longer needs facts to support their declarations. Now, merely creating a claim that is widely accepted is enough to make it true.
Breaking down the issue
First, is fake news something we should even care about? Does it make any noticeable difference? Second, is there any difference between fake news today and fake news from 10, 25 or 50 years ago? Really, haven’t we always had fake news?
Just one problem. Neither quote is true.
The first question is more complex. If we take most fake news stories individually, then probably there is little to no harm. However, when these types of stories begin to appear in rising numbers, we encounter a problem that appears to show that more people are believing things just because someone said they’re true.
Compare journalism today to that of 25 years ago. In the past, journalists were held to a very high standard that required them to have multiple confirmed sources. Today, this type of professionalism has virtually disappeared as hordes of pseudo-journalists instead find gratification through likes and retweets.
In democratic societies, where people are supposed to be involved in choosing leaders and shaping the direction of their country, misguidance can do irreparable damage to stable structures, as some make decisions based on claims that they incorrectly assume are true.
So, what’s the difference today?
The second question is a little easier to answer. While there has always been fake news, the advent of social media has given it a whole new power. In the past, fake news was mostly found in tabloid magazines or passed by word of mouth.
Today, reinforcing any idea is as simple as sharing a Facebook post or retweeting an article. Not only does this make it much easier to pass on, but also enables practically any statement or idea to reach many more people faster than ever. Even worse, it gives any thought a sudden veneer of truth when you see other people sharing the anecdote. After all, if five of my friends all posted the same thing, it must be true, right?
I’ve gained some minor fame/notoriety on Facebook for daring to actually research and respond to all kinds of claims, and then pointing out falsehoods. What I’ve found is that there is one factor that feeds fake news more than any other: confirmation bias. That is, the entirely natural human tendency to believe claims that support what we already believe to be true and dismiss claims that already think are false.
Seeing flawed logic
For example, consider a popular Facebook post that quotes Donald Trump as saying that if he ran for President, he’d do so as a Republican since the people following that party are more stupid and easier to trick. How about another popular post that quotes Hillary Clinton as saying that blacks are genetically predisposed to violence.
Just one problem. Neither quote is true.
In discussions on global warming, we have fake news competing with actual scientific evidence. In discussions of religion, we have fake news of abuses committed by [insert whatever group you dislike] competing with true stories of great things done by those same groups. In discussions of international issues, we have fake news that demonizes our enemies, which compete with positive developments in those same nations.
How is one supposed to make sense of this cacophonous mess?
First, to be aware of the danger of confirmation bias, we should refrain from believing things just because we’d like to think they’re true. Second, if we think a story is important enough to share with others, then it should also deserve a quick two or three minutes to Google and verify its authenticity. The rest is up to you.