More people are on social media than ever before and because of coronavirus, they have been spending more time on it than ever before as well. This rise in dependence on social media for communication has some worried it may play a larger than expected role in influencing the 2020 election in the United States. Just like in the 2016 election fears concern the problem of fake news.
While the term fake news has colloquially developed to encompass everything from untrue and deceptive information to information one disagrees with, the former is the type I’ll be focusing on here. The concept of fake news did not develop with social media. Sensationalism existed alongside fact-based journalism long before news went digital. Think of the tabloids at the grocery store checkout shouting about celebrity feuds and bigfoot sightings.
What social media did was allow everyone to become reporters and editors, unleashing a firehose of information – truth, opinion, and naive or purposeful deceit – that, in the pursuit of democratization, is all presented to us as equal.
The sheer amount of information social media now gives us to digest is enough in and of itself to overwhelm us in to being less discerning about the truth. During the reign of print journalism, most sources maxed out at 2 or 3 daily editions. Then cable news introduced the 24 hours news cycle. Now you can hop on social media for new information every minute and even follow along as citizen journalists live report an event as it’s happening, sometimes before it’s ever on the radar of news organizations.
Add into this mix every individual’s opinion and the voices of those interested in misleading others or sowing division and social media becomes a very chaotic and confusing source from which to get your news.
Measuring My Fake News Exposure
As of October 2019, 55% of Americans reported they got news on social media often or sometimes. I fall in that 55% so I decided to find out just what kind of news I was encountering on my social media accounts.
For 5 days I tracked news about the public health need to wear masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic. I chose this topic in part because it was timely, but also because it’s both scientific and divisive, making it more likely for me to be fed a wide range of related content. Each day I used Facebook and Twitter for 15 minutes each to seek out information on this topic.
For the purpose of this exercise, I defined fact-based content as social media posts which linked to news sources that could be fact-checked and proven true. Fake news was the same criteria but fact-checking proved the sources misleading or false. Opinion refers to any post on the topic, factually correct or not, which did not link to or cite a source for the information it was providing or links clearly labeled opinion.
First of all, I found there was a noticeable difference between the two platforms and the ratio of content types they delivered to me. Facebook was about 50% links to articles or videos from fact-based journalism organizations like The New York Times or local TV news affiliates. These were also almost exclusively shared by either people and groups I am personally connected to or from the news organizations themselves.
The remainder of content was mostly posts with personal friends’ opinions – all but a couple presenting facts correctly – or satirical and comical responses to the topic, such as from Conan O’Brian and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Despite the humorous style of this content, fact-checking proved they did contain accurate information about mask wearing.
Twitter, though, was less straightforward. Almost 50% of the content I saw on this topic was individual user opinion, not surprising considering Twitter’s identity as a micro-blogging platform. Seemingly scientific-sounding information was often being presented but sources were rarely cited or linked to so it was difficult to decipher just from the tweets whether fact or fiction were influencing these opinions.
When I searched outside Twitter for corroborating information, I found about 30% of the ideas being promoted through opinion tweets were tied to sources known for conspiracy theories, gossip, and fake news. Evidence-based news still seemed to win out though, as it did on Facebook, in terms of the overall tone of the content I saw. Scrolling and searching for 15 minutes through Twitter produced an average of 4.8 links to fact-based sources a day. Facebook produced an average of 5.6.
On one hand, I was not surprised Facebook performed somewhat better in my search for the truth. I engage more frequently on that platform, it more accurately reflects my in-person social atmosphere, and I have made a concerted effort to curate out offensive or incorrect news sources.
On the other hand, I was surprised by the small amount of linked fake news I found on Twitter. Searching the overall trend of masks, I expected it to be full of obscure, incorrect sources since doing it this way displays content from everyone talking about the topic instead of just accounts I follow.
Fake news is talked about as running rampant on social media, but when I peeled back the lid on a currently divisive topic, fake news wasn’t clearly winning. Although I saw plenty of opinions not rooted in fact, it was far more reasonable than I expected in terms of fake news stories disguised as legitimate sources. I thought there would be far more accounts posting at a high rate deceptive links than what I found.
There was even a higher number of users trying to actively correct misinformation and disinformation than I thought I’d see on Twitter. This made me wonder if Clay Shirky’s 2009 observation that inaccuracies are often corrected quickly by other users could be true again in the world of coronavirus. Perhaps there is more of an investment by users, now that our collective health is at risk, to counteract fallacies related to the pandemic circulating on social media.
As the week went on the amount of factual news continued to outperform fake news in the social media conversation with a peak on Thursday. The life of this news topic over the course of the 5 days I followed it was fascinating. While it is a subject unto itself, it ended up being connected to and even boosted by other news topics.
Former Vice President Joe Biden publicly wore a mask on Monday raising the prominence of the mask-wearing debate over the following 48 hours. Then the United States officially surpassed 100,000 Covid-19 deaths on Wednesday leading to increased conversation about the effectiveness of masks in lowering the death rate. Finally, attention to the topic of Covid-19 dropped on Friday as social media conversation and debate turned to focus almost exclusively on the murder of George Flyod. Still, though, masks were tied to this topic via discussion of who was or was not wearing masks at related protests, either to protect public health or interfere with surveillance.
I was surprised throughout this rollercoaster of attention that opinion, not fake news, was actually the main competitor to the truth in terms of sheer amount of content and engagement. This may have been due to heavy conversation surrounding conflicting advice from 2 official, science-based sources: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Some users cited CDC advice to argue in favor of wearing masks in public in the United States while users on the other side of the debate used WHO advice to argue against mask mandates.
The strangest thing about Twitter at times was that I waded through this content-fueled culture war over masks only to then find a link to a fact-based source, such as this Washington Post article, reporting on that very same culture war. In seeking out news on this battle I was actually going to one of the sights of the battle. I think that’s an important difference to note between social media and traditional media.
With traditional media, the information is presented and then you might hear from or engage with the rest of the world about said information afterward. On social media, you are trying to take in the information at the same time you’re engaging in conversation or debate. How much of a distraction from the truth is this multitasking environment? How likely are you to not get all the facts and become susceptible to allowing ill-informed or ill-intentioned sources to fill in the blanks for you?
While social media can be a good source to help you discover news, it’s not the most focused or efficient if you are looking to factually and purposely follow a topic. Others may also be discovering this problem.
The New York Times recently reported that since the coronavirus pandemic began, website traffic for established and science-based news sources, such as the Times, has surged by up to 50%. Traffic for popular partisan sites, such as dailykos.com and breitbart.com, has not followed this trend.
Even though most internet users are also social media users, they are opting more and more to filter out the noise and go straight to the source when actively seeking information on coronavirus. This suggests fellow users’ opinions, however prevalent, may have less sway over people’s understanding of coronavirus news than fact-based sources do.
Applying the Right Filter
I consider myself to be well educated and unlikely to fall for fake news, but the proximity of fact to fiction on social media means none of us can ever be certain we’re immune to it.
Remember those bigfoot tabloids? You probably looked at those and chuckled, letting reason win out. But was there a small part of you, way in the back of your head, that still wondered if the headlines were true? This little attraction to believe the unbelievable can become problematic when we see others indulging it, which is what social media does.
This is why it’s important to have a clear practiced technique for filtering news information found on social media. For example, librarians at California State University, Chico, developed a set of questions you can use to evaluate information called the CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) test.
“People will be very critical when they see something they don’t like, and then they switch off their critical faculties when it agrees with their worldviews.”Author Peter Pomerantsev to NPR
However, simply seeing the truth may not keep everyone from supporting and spreading fake news, especially if they’re not comfortable with changing their minds. There is currently a high-profile debate between Twitter and President Donald Trump about the roles and responsibilities of social media companies in terms of content regulation, but experts warn fact-checking, as Twitter is promoting, isn’t a guaranteed solution to fake news. Sometimes people want to believe what they want to believe. After all, somebody bought all those bigfoot tabloids.
If you are interested in a thorough examination of the mask-wearing debate in the United States, I suggest Vox’s article titled “Why 15 US states are suddenly making masks mandatory.” For official information, consult the CDC or the WHO.
*The data included in this blog reflects an examination of an individual’s social media accounts and does not reflect overall trends on these platforms.
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