In our LSA on Point series, College experts weigh in on topics that are breaking or trending in the news.
Why do you think fake news became such a prominent issue during this election cycle?
Brian Weeks: To me, there are two primary reasons. First, compared to other recent elections, the larger debate of what constitutes “truth” and “fact” was a central focus in this campaign. Numerous claims made by both candidates were labeled as untrue, and there was often very little agreement about basic facts related to the candidates and the campaign.
The second reason I feel fake news was a prominent issue in 2016 was the public’s increasing awareness of the potential influence social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have on the political process. Obviously, social media were relevant in previous election cycles, but the continued growth of social media means that more people used these sites to receive, share, and discuss political information than in 2008 or 2012. I think many have now realized social media’s prominence in our political lives and started to think about the quality of information we are exposed to and the effect it may have on what we believe or how we behave politically.
How does social media amplify the effectiveness of fake news?
BW: It is pretty clear that social media helps fake news spread, which in turn increases the chances that people will be exposed to it. Research on the influence of emotions, in particular anger, helps explain this. Studies investigating what makes news content go viral indicate that anger-inducing stories are much more likely to be spread online. Our research also suggests that people who exhibit anger toward a political candidate are more willing to share political news stories on social media. If we assume that fake news often contains emotional political content that may increase anger toward a candidate an individual already dislikes, it’s not surprising that fake news is widely shared in social media.
But more important than whether people see fake news is whether they believe it. We know that people are more willing to believe a false story or claim if it reinforces their existing political attitudes and beliefs. So if social media increases the spread of fake news and people are exposed to bogus stories that fit with their worldview, there is a greater likelihood that they will think it’s true. It is also important to consider that a lot of people see fake news that is shared in social media by their friends and family. We tend to trust that people close to us are not deceiving us, so we may not scrutinize a fake news story shared by a friend to the same degree were we to encounter it elsewhere.
All of this said, much of the supposed influence of fake news in 2016 is at this point anecdotal. Before we have scientific, peer-reviewed studies, I think it is best to reserve judgment on how influential fake news actually was in this election cycle.
Do you think media outlets have a responsibility to vet user-generated content on their platforms for truth and accuracy?
BW: The reality is that social media and Facebook in particular have become one of, if not the most important sources for news for many people. If we’re talking about Facebook, I do think they have an obligation to exert some control over the quality of information on the site, including fake news. But implementing this type of quality control gets tricky. How do they slow the spread of fake news in a way that does not censor content? At the end of the day, Facebook is a technology company and not a news organization. They are not and should not be arbiters of political truth and fact. So it was encouraging to see Facebook partner with news and fact-checking organizations to help them sort fact from fiction on the site. This is a first step in the right direction.
In an age when there are so many sources of information that lie outside traditional media, what are some ways we can be more savvy as information consumers?
BW: There is no question that it is becoming more difficult to determine what is a credible source of news and information. Fake news sites often have the look and feel of real news and, in some cases, completely copy the design of real news sites but change a single letter in the URL. So it is not surprising that many people, including young people, have a hard time distinguishing real news from fake news. I think the number one rule people can follow is to be skeptical of information you see online and in social media. Know that fake news is now prevalent on the internet and be vigilant. It is also always a good idea to verify a questionable story with a mainstream and reputable news source. Are they reporting the same news? If not, there is a good chance that original story is fake. Fact-checking sites like Politifact and rumor-debunking sites like Snopes are also great resources if you are unsure whether a story you see is real.
Much like yellow journalism used sensational and misleading headlines to sell newspapers, fake news uses these tactics to get clicks and shares online, which leads to revenue for its creators. And much like sensational news, I suspect fake news is here to stay. We can try to use technology to limit it and teach people to spot it, but I think it is something we will continue to have to navigate. Throughout history, from the telephone, to radio, to TV, people have been worried about the impact of new technologies in our lives. We have to remember that social media are still relatively new, and we are still learning how they are used and to what effect. I am optimistic that as we continue to incorporate social media into our political lives we will become more aware of the quality of information we see, which will help us get better at recognizing and ignoring fake news.
Brian Weeks is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and a faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies. His primary research areas include the formation and consequences of political misperceptions, and how citizens engage political information on social media. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, or of the University of Michigan.