In the fallout of the presidential election, one topic that seems to surface a lot is the spread of fake news online and on social media. During the campaign cycle, people were constantly posting and sharing fake news all over social media, often more than real stories.
Here are a couple of examples of headlines that turned out to be completely fake: “Terrorists are funding 20-percent of Hillary Clinton’s campaign;” “Tim Kaine will ban the Catholic Church from the U.S. if they don’t change their stance on same sex marriage;” and “Busloads of paid Trump protestors arrive in Austin, Texas.”
The protestor story was reportedly shared more than 350,000 times in the first day, including a high-profile Twitter share by Donald Trump. Again, none of these stories were real or had any level of truth to them.
Some false stories are merely satirical and shared out of humor or irony. Unfortunately, they may continue to be shared by some who take them as the real thing and never confirm the content, fueled by unqualified commentary.
Whether from laziness or apathy, most people never look at a story closely enough to see if the stories they share online are factual or phony. Some people never look past the headlines before they start commenting and circulating junk news. And, once shared, the cork has been removed from the bottle and the genie on its way.
People tend to share stories on social media based on political and religious views. Stories are passed along through a digital chain of telephone where no one really looks at the basis of the story nor do they take a moment to consider the logic behind even the most outrageous headline.
Those with a propensity for fake news believe either the liberal left or the fanatical right controls the mainstream media. So, combating the spread of this nonsense is virtually impossible, because even fact checking is ignored.
Additionally, the fact is that fake news has been around far longer than the Internet has even existed. Print media like the National Enquirer, the Globe and other checkout rags have long been accused of publishing stories with no factual basis.
Many of these tabloid publications have been sued for the alleged fabrication of stories. Before the Internet, these publications had circulation in the hundreds of millions but that has dropped considerably over the years. Why wait for sensational stuff at the grocery store checkout when it’s immediately available on Facebook?
There’s also something ironic about the fact that people who seem so upset at the slanted reporting of mainstream media will spend so much time circulating nonsense stories everywhere else. So what can be done? Most of that is up to the reader.
Much of the blame for the proliferation of nonsense news has been focused on the social media outlets. Facebook has come under fire recently for not doing more to limit the distribution of false news during the election cycle. Unfortunately, it’s not the responsibility of social media operators to ensure the accuracy of content generated and propagated by its users.
The real culprits are the folks on the other side of the computer and smart phone screens. Social media operates because of people and if they stop circulating this junk it will dissipate. It really is that simple.
Forwarding some outlandish tale simply because it degrades an opposing view benefits no one. And, commenting on a news story without checking out its validity just makes people look ignorant. Sorry, there’s no nice way to say that.
But just imagine if people read beyond the headline and checked out a story from a couple of different resources before passing it along as “fact?” The level of garbage flowing around social media would be immediately cut in half.
Before reposting something, check it out and make sure it’s a real story. They get it wrong sometimes too, but generally, if it didn’t come from a mainstream news outlet, it’s probably not been verified by anyone. There’s nothing new about sensationalism in news, but responsibility for the constant viral circulation of fake or outrageous stories must rest, at least in part, with the users.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications, Ltd. More at gerydeer.com.