During the 2016 election cycle, fake news sites spread like wildfire on Facebook and other social media platforms. Fabricated stories trashing both candidates were shared, and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish true stories from false ones. Now that the dust has settled from the election, many are wondering just what an impact fake news sites will make on the social landscape.
Fake news may have found a home on Facebook, but eviction is imminent.
Facebook has updated the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites. Google is also echoing Facebook’s efforts. The company recently announced they would ban websites that peddle fake news from using its online advertising service.
According to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students, some 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. Nearly 40 percent of high school students believed, based on the headline, that a photo of deformed daisies provided strong evidence of toxic conditions near a nuclear plant in Japan, even though no source or location was given for the photo.
The rise of fake news sites may be the result of increasing distrust in institutional news providers. Only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust and confidence in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly”—the lowest in Gallup’s polling history. The mainstream media was the pummeling horse in this recent election.
Many Americans doubled down on their distrust towards the election. If the media didn’t agree with their views, it was lambasted, and many would go to a source that would confirm their suspicions and biases. Though the truth does not change according to our preference, lies can temporarily satisfy our hunger for information that fits our biases.
Now that Pandora is out of the box, what can we do now to combat this wave of fake news?
Save your clicks.
There was a day when “newsies sold papes,” as the Broadway musical coins it. You paid money to receive the news, and the news industry made its profits on the subscriptions and sale of its products.
Today, this is not the case. News is free and readily available in a number of formats. But as we know to be true, there is no such thing as a free lunch … or news, for that matter. Today, the industry’s costs are being passed off to advertisers.
The more clicks to the site, the more money they are willing to pay. This model led to “clickbait” titles to entice readers and drive up clicks. When we became desensitized to salacious headlines, some news outlets began producing fictitious news to solicit clicks.
You don’t have to believe the story or even share it for the news site to make money. All they need is your click. If you don’t click on the site, advertisers won’t pay. If they don’t pay, then that is less money for the site, which means less writers to produce lies.
Be discerning of where you click because you are effectively paying the site with your click. Don’t click on the “too good to be true” or “that can’t be real” articles. Before curiosity killed the cat, it caused the cat to make a mess of the house. Don’t be the cat.
Understand your confirmation bias.
We all have certain preconceived notions and biases that shape the way we view the world. This is called our confirmation bias, which is “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs.”
It is important to recognize both your own confirmation biases and that of the websites you frequent. The New York Times tends to lean liberal, the Wall Street Journal tends to be more conservative. They may frame their articles, even subconsciously, in such a way that favors their ideologies, so it is important to understand the context of the platform you’re reading.
Don’t give up.
Giving up on traditional media got us to this point, but it will not get us out of this predicament.
We gave up on historic media sources and journalism ethics, and fake news site rose in prominence. Ignorance is not bliss; rather, it is the biggest detriment to a healthy society. Where ignorance and apathy abide, broad mischaracterizations and distortions of truth thrive.
Instead of giving up, double down. Purchase a subscription. Sign up for an email newsletter. Support news organizations that produce quality, well-researched articles and essays. Yes, even traditional news outlets are imperfect organizations that may have failed us in the past, but traditional media sources have levels of accountability that fake news sites lack. Since the outlet is making money off advertising and your subscription, they are more likely to care about their customers’ feedback.
Instead of demanding information that confirms your bias, look for stories and articles that report fairly and argue reasonably. Ask that they share opinion articles from both side of the issue. When you find an outlet that does this, invest in a subscription and support credible news sources.
It may be more instantly gratifying to read fake news that supports your preconceived notions, but it isn’t good for our society. But we have a responsibility for more. Just like we have a responsibility to respond to the information in the world, we must be disciplined enough to seek a balanced understanding of it.