With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
We are currently living in an era known as the Information Age, a period characterized by a shift from the industrial to digital revolution. Today, technology plays a huge role in the shaping of human life and the growth of the economy. This influential force is largely driven by the Internet, which provides a democratic public space for discussion and distribution. It is a platform containing content, communication, and a body of collective knowledge designed to make the task of acquiring information easier and less time consuming. Through the “Triple Revolution”, identifying the growth in social networks, the rise of the Internet, and the advent of mobile connectivity (Wellmen & Raine, 2012), comes a change in how the public gets their news and information. The Internet revolution gave people stronger communications power and info gathering capacities, and allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters via social media. With this new sense of power put into the hands of the public and an overflow of news sources, comes the concern with propaganda and manipulation, placing us in the midst of a post-truth and fake news era.
Misinformation as a Weapon of Destruction
In light of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a plethora of fake news stories spread like wildfire on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. “Click bait” articles with intriguing titles and a lack of credible references to back up these fabricated claims were used as tactics to shape public perceptions of the oppositional politician in the running. For example, independent news source, Wonkette, published an article with the headline “HILLARY CLINTON ADMITS CONSPIRING WITH PIZZAGATE CHILD DUNGEON PIZZERIA!!1!”. This was just one of the many news articles that targeted presidential candidate at the time, Hillary Clinton, for being directly involved with a child-trafficking sex ring inside a pizza parlour. This outlandish accusation held no truth, yet was shared and believed by countless social media users lacking critical thinking skills. But this particular election wasn’t the first instance of fake news circulation. In fact, producing and sharing misinformation has been an age-old problem, only becoming more dangerous and ubiquitous through the rise of social media. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer reported that nearly seven in ten respondents worry about fake news and false information being used as a weapon. Deliberately publishing fake news stories with the intention of persuading readers to believe this misinformation as legitimate, is generated for the purpose of political or financial gain.
Support Through Social Media
So why is fake news so easy to create online? It’s important to first understand what exactly social media is, as these social networking platforms often perpetuate the dissemination of these stories. Social media, as defined by scholars Danah M. Boyd and Nicole B. Ellison, are “mediated social networks that support interaction, production, and consumption” (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Social media is also viewed as fostering a participatory culture. Media scholar Henry Jenkins, defines it as a culture that welcomes consumers to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content (Jenkins, 2013). However, fellow scholar Christian Fuchs, states that an Internet dominated by corporations whose main goal is to profit through exploiting and commodifying, cannot possibly be participatory (Fuchs, 2014). I think it’s important to focus on both the techno-cultural constructs that Jenkins refers to, and the socio-economic structures that Fuchs addresses, in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of how social media shapes participatory culture and furthermore, sociability. These perspectives beg the question, is social media truly fostering authentic participation and empowerment, or ushering in new modes of corporate and social control? One must keep in mind that the constructs of capitalism influence the creation and circulation of online content. When we look at Facebook’s social media mandate: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, and Twitter’s mandate: “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers”, they position their users in control of creating, sharing and consuming content. Content presented via social media does not have to have approval to be published, which is beneficial to users in the sense that it creates a freedom from censorship and control. But on the other hand, this can also help support the production and spread of fake news.
Combatting Fake News
The challenge lies in finding sources and evaluating its validity. Authors Fornaciari and Roca examine the challenges with using the Internet as a news source tool including, “problems obtaining and evaluating quality sources, and successfully integrating the information obtained using critical thinking” (Fornaciari & Roca,1999). Investing in developing strong digital literacy will equip you with valuable knowledge and skills to discern facts from alternative facts. Molly Beestrum’s CRAP Test is a tool anyone can use when assessing the validity of a news story. It focuses on 4 main areas. Currency – how recent is the information? Reliability – is the content backed up with references/sources, or primarily an opinion piece? Authority – is the publisher visible, reputable, and what is there interest in this information? Purpose – is this fact or opinion, biased, or trying to sell you something? By running through these questions you are doing your “due diligence to verify news sources” (Zhenegye, 2018).
No Easy Solution
The spread of fake news is not an easy thing to stop. These stories can play on our weaknesses and lure us in with little effort. It can come naturally to want to only believe information that affirms your pre-existing beliefs, which is known as confirmation bias. Social media algorithms shape what kind of content we see, often rewarding content that have a high “sharability” factor through click bait titles. In Mike Caulfield’s article “Yes Digital Literacy. But Which One?” he stresses, “domain knowledge is crucial to literacy”. This goes beyond the CRAP test. We must consider and understand the environment which our website sources act in, and using our tools and skills, critically analyze the information online that many of us are quick to consume without batting an eye. Those who grew up in the Information Age – known as “Digital Natives”, are said to now more than anyone else, engage in “increased multitasking behaviours…linked to increased distractibility” (Loh & Kanai, 2016). This can be linked to the ongoing influence of fake news, as many people lack the attentive focus needed to identify credible information from misinformation and hoaxes, and would rather quickly accept a piece of fiction as fact than look outside the source for similar information to verify. The Internet is a largely valuable force in our society and we should understand the effective way to use it in order to increase our collective intelligence. Moderate usage of this technology would be the most beneficial, using it as a resource for gathering information to help formulate an answer. It becomes dangerous to us when we turn to this platform for other’s thoughts and ideas and blindly adopt them without critical consumption or formation of our own ideas first. Self-reliance must still be exercised often, and the Internet should be used as a tool, which assists in our ability to obtain news and knowledge.
Leaving My Digital Footprint
Suler describes the “Online Disinhibition Effect” that takes place when face-to-face interactions are replaced with actions behind a computer screen. This can also be linked to the spread of misinformation, as online “trolls” can adopt a mentality of “toxic disinhibition”, which is often disrespectful and causes harm due to the ability to be anonymous, minimizing ones sense of responsibility (Suler, 2004). As a content creator myself, I have asked myself who I want to be online and how I will be a good digital citizen. The fake news phenomenon is something that’s largely out of my control, as I am just one social media user and blogger in a sea of Internet news and opinion sources. But I can do my part to help combat this era of fake news. How? I am not a news source website. I identify as more of an opinion and personal experience source. But by communicating with as little bias as possible, being honest and reliable with any facts I include and linking these facts to credible sources of expertise, I can build up my own credibility and genuinely become a trusted source of information.
Boyd, D. and Ellison, N. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. Retrieved from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00393.x/full
Fornaciari, C. & Roca, M. (1999). Age of Clutter: Conducting Effective Research Using the Internet. Journal of Management Education. Vol. 23, 6: pp. 732-742. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/105256299902300610
Fuchs, C. (2014). Social Media as Participatory Culture. SAGE Publications. Retrieved from: file:///Users/monicaalves/Downloads/Fuchs_2014_SoME_A_Critical_Intro_Ch_3%20(1).pdf
Jenkins, H. (2013). Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. NYU Press. Retrieved from: file:///Users/monicaalves/Downloads/project_muse_21244-749941%20(1).pdf
Loh, K. & Kanai, R. (2016). How Has the Internet Reshaped Human Cognition? The Neuroscientist. Vol. 22, 5: pp. 506-520. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1073858415595005
Suler, J. (2004). Cyber Psychology and Behavior – The Online Disinhibition Effect, Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from: http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html
Wellmen, B. & Raine, L. (2012). The New Social Operating System, The MIT Press. Retrieved from: file:///Users/monicaalves/Downloads/Rainie_and_Wellman_2012_Networked_Ch_1%20(2).pdf
Zhenegye, J. (2018, February 6). How to Combat Fake News to Build Trust and Protect Your Reputation, Communication World Magazine. Retrieved from: http://boston.iabc.com/2018/02/12/how-to-combat-fake-news-to-build-trust-and-protect-your-reputation/
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