No U.S. election has ever been so highly swayed by news and ‘fake news’ filtered through online social media. The New York Times documented the many instances of hoaxes, fake news and misinformation on Election Day — arising from social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as printed fliers and inaccurate election guides sent to voters. Media companies have been slow to rise to this challenge.
I predicted this Echo Chamber Effect long ago, in my novel Earth (1989): “The problem wasn’t getting access to information. It was to stave off drowning in it. People bought personalized filter programs to skim a few droplets from that sea and keep the rest out. For some, subjective reality became the selected entertainments and special -interest zines passed through by those tailored shells.”
An analysis by Buzzfeed news found that viral fake news stories outperformed real news, resulting in more engagement of readers on Facebook than election news from nineteen major news sites combined. Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars has compiled a list of fake or misleading news sites that warrant caution. Some are merely click-bait; some unreliable or biased; a few may even be satire. The toxic Infowars by the ever-angry Alex Jones is an obvious offender.
John Pavley, Sr. Vice President at Viacom, takes this thought farther in his posting: Trolls Are USA, talking about how these new media are causing social breakdowns. moreover, this lobotomization is familiar, from history.
Remember, the first effect of the printing press was to exacerbate intolerance… till printed books later empowered people to fight against it. Or ponder the way 1930s radio first wrought fanaticism and horror before it fostered empathy. Likewise, Pavley talks about how monsters are using the new media more effectively, before they can increase our reasoning ability and empathy:
“The broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed. Then came the public internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members.
“Here the troll was born…. Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice, you are the troll.”
Max Read argues in New York Magazine that our ‘echo chamber’ mentality, to gather in likeminded swarms online, may have been a crucial factor this year. Polemically fervid-uniform ’nuremberg rallies”… and there are (yes) some on the left, too.
“All throughout the election, these fake stories, sometimes papered over with flimsy “parody site” disclosures somewhere in small type, circulated throughout Facebook: The Pope endorses Trump. Hillary Clinton bought $137 million in illegal arms. The Clintons bought a $200 million house in the Maldives. Many got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of shares, likes, and comments; enough people clicked through to the posts to generate significant profits for their creators. The valiant efforts of Snopes and other debunking organizations were insufficient; Facebook’s labyrinthine sharing and privacy settings mean that fact-checks get lost in the shuffle.”
Yes to much of that. Fretful over how social media are being blamed for the Echo Chamber Effect, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a response to accusations that “fake news” on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election, and helped Donald Trump to win. On NPR, Aarti Shahani points out a fundamental discrepancy: “He (Zuckerberg) and his team have made a very complex set of contradictory rules — a bias toward restricted speech for regular users, and toward free speech for “news” (real or fake).”
Faced with increasing criticism, both Facebook and Google have announced changes in their oversight of fake news sites. Google said that it would prohibit fake news sites from using its online advertising service. Similarly Facebook recently updated its policy about placing ads on sites that display misleading content. In a The New York Times article, Jim Rutenberg writes, “The cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism.” And of course, you get what you pay for.
For modern journalism is being undermined by one flaw in today’s internet. By the net’s astonishing over-reliance on advertising to pay the bills. By sucking away the revenue source of old-fashioned, fact-centered investigative news media, this business model has harmed us all. In a series on Evonomics, I’ve made out a case for a micropayment system to effectively fund online content: Advertising Cannot Maintain the Internet and the follow-up: Beyond Advertising: Will Micropayments Sustain the New Internet?
We live in a tsunami of information. The problem is to avoid drowning in it. As citizens, we need to hone our skeptical skills to better sort truth from dross. And we need reliable methods to ensure accountability and trustworthiness for our news sources.