Anyone remember the 2000 United States presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush? It was, to date, the closest presidential election in our nation’s history, a .009% margin and 537 votes separating the two candidates. The ending of that election is what stands out most notably with those who participated. There was a demand for recount, a bit of a debacle in Florida that has forever branded the state during the voting season, and a questioning of a system where a candidate wins the popular vote but loses the electoral vote. While this history lesson sounds familiar, what happened this year is dramatically different. This year’s presidential race left political experts and disappointed constituents trying to deduce how this election resulted as it did. There have been quite a few excuses offered such as a lack of connection with blue collar voters, a “lesser of two evils” decision, and a desire to shake up a perceived status quo in Washington D.C.
Another theory that has garnered a good amount of attention – fake news sites. According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media, 44% getting their news from Facebook. It’s alarming how some “independent” news sources pass either opinion pieces or flat-out fiction, and it is more alarming the amount of people who circulate it as actual news. I’ve been hearing about fake news sites all week as people gnash their teeth over this last election, holding Facebook and Google responsible for failing to control the flow of misinformation.
The truth is, though, these fake sites are nothing new. They have been conveying their tall tales for years now. Only now, in the wake of such a contentious election, has control of fake news become a priority to social media giants.
Let’s take a serious look at how the fake news works. Blog hosts and webmasters will create fake news websites in order to sign up for advertising, like with Google Adwords, for instance. The more traffic a website garners, the more revenue is earned from the number of Adword clickthroughs. As these sites make money on advertising, they need to produce news that grabs attention. This is when these “news agencies” such as this all-too convincing CNN site (this is a spoof site) make up outrageous articles that actually have no bearing in truth. These bogus stories may favor Trump or even Hillary, but they are all ridiculous. In that fake news article above, you see it’s President Obama banning the National Anthem. On reading it, it sound horrifying and all to-real. Unlike other online satire like the New Yorker’s “Borowitz Report” and the popular satire site The Onion, this piece of false journalism doesn’t cross the line of ridiculousness until near the end. (The “dolphin mascot” cited near the article’s end obviously does not exist.)
Most readers rarely reach that point. At the point of outrage, they start sharing that fake news article all over Facebook and other social media platforms. The more people click through the fake news site, the more money made for these faux journalists. You can see how this creates behavior that can lead to an abundance of fake news.
In light of recent criticism, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg jumped to the defensive, claiming that “more than 99% of what people see is authentic” so he said it’s “extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
The irony of this is that Zuckerberg doesn’t cite where he’s getting this 99% statistic.
A reason why this “fake news” responsibility is being laid at the feet of Facebook is on account of Facebook’s own experiments to see if the platform can influence user behavior by editing the news feed with biased articles. A Wall Street Journal interactive attempts to show this difference, showing how a “Liberal Facebook” and “Conservative Facebook” look like, side-by-side. With such a varying difference between the two, experts are trying to figure out what is the impact of social media; and it’s there. People are losing trust traditional news sources on account of a perceived bias, so more users are turning to Facebook and social media which unfortunately could be even worse.
Google, to their credit, is undertaking a more direct attack at this problem. The search engine, on identifying and confirmed fake news sites, are banning Google Adwords, a good move that gets to the root cause of the problem. It must be working as Facebook has adopted a similar policy in their own advertising so instead of being accused of censoring content, both Facebook and Google are trying to make fake news less profitable.
My concern is, though, two-fold. This genie of pretend journalism is going to be difficult to get back into a bottle. And users on all platforms are going to need to work a little harder to find credible news, but in this age of information where it could take you five to ten minutes to confirm any news story, people just want to be the first to share, the first to be in the know, even if the news isn’t real. It’s all about being topical, right.
A little too late in the game to change the outcome? It’s hard to say. What do you think?
A research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.