During the 2016 election, fake news drove headlines. Mark Zuckerberg found himself issuing a statement that essentially said they weren’t to blame for the fake news so prevalent on Facebook, and also claiming that it was absurd to insinuate that the election would have swayed over fake news.
But, fake news is nothing new. It’s been there all along. A reminder can be seen at every grocery store checkout line across the country.
The thing that has changed is our ability to discern the real from the fake in this digital age. Facebook and other social media algorithms bring news stories tailored to a user’s preferences, which often reinforces preconceived notions or biases.
When fake news was largely accessible only at the checkout lines false information was easier to filter out. Stories that misrepresented political points in a sensationalized way would be found in the same publication claiming that Elvis and Bigfoot have been hiding in plain sight, operating a bed and breakfast in Kentucky. When sensationalized claims are packed in with other claims of similar validity, the juxtaposition lent itself to easier filtering, even if the viewer’s biases predisposed them to believe a given story. Glancing at a tabloid with a page covered in outlandish claims gives the immediate feeling that the publication lacks credibility.
On the internet, subject matter is pared down and customized. Clickbait articles and fake news websites deliver content in a much more targeted way. Selling in the grocery store required that publications cast a wide net and cover a variety of topics to attract readers. The exact opposite is true of new media. The targeted approach gets people to click the like button. If a viewer is prone to believe a given stance, and upon glancing at the site’s Facebook page, only the falsehoods they’re prone to believe are displayed, the publication will be viewed as credible whether or not the organization has any kind of journalistic integrity.
Large scale censorship of fake news is not the answer, though. It opens the door to requiring social media websites to become the arbiters of truth rather than the platform for our voices. Creating a censorship framework today that helps to eliminate fake news websites will open the door to future abuses of that power. The thing that protects people against things they don’t want others to say can and will eventually prevent those same people from using their voice and contributing to the conversation.
At the end of it all, it becomes all the more important that Americans develop higher critical thinking skills. Even reputable institutions can make mistakes. Even fact-based arguments can use half-truths and statistics cherry picked to prove a point. As information becomes more readily available, our responsibility to properly consume that information increases.
As a whole, we are still growing into the internet age. Some of the consequences of such a powerful tool still haven’t been realized. The only way to solve the fake news problem is to stop and think before you hit the like button, and civilly disagree with others who share the misinformation.