Increasingly, social media users consume information online through multi-channel media outlets; three of those being Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. News highlights are commonly featured alongside updates from those within our respective social networks. Within this paper, Facebook will be analyzed as a prominent source for news online, and the implication of this on the legitimacy of featured content. In an era where information is so readily available online, how are social media users to determine the validity of the news they are exposed to online, and what role does ignorance play in the spread of “fake news”, or misinformation? Due to the wide array of available news media sources, users are increasingly exposed to contradictory information through multiple outlets to be interpreted at their own discretion.
Facebook has become a widely adopted social media platform, with an approximate 1.8 billion users worldwide, according to Oremus (2016) in their article posted to slate.com. Oremus highlights that out of these 1.8 billion users, a staggering forty four percent of adults get their news from the social media platform (pp. 2). In the outcome of a newsworthy event, this means these users will likely turn to Facebook to access information and updates on a situation.
The way news is often presented on Facebook is in the form of posts from third party news sources. In a study conducted by Anderson and Caumont (2014) posted to pewresearch.org, “Facebook users are experiencing a relatively diverse array of news stories on the site — roughly half of Facebook users regularly see six different topic areas” (pp. 6). This overexposure to news online leads to users gaining much of their information not from a single source, as was previously the case with traditional media technologies such as television and radio. Instead, news is being disseminated through multiple channels simultaneously, creating an influx of information for audiences to decipher.
With so much exposure to various news information, it is important to consider the validity of what is being presented. Much of the news we see on social media platforms like Facebook is sensationalized, and uses “clickbait” tactics in order to generate clicks on their respective websites. “Clickbait”, a term specific to social media platforms, refers to the practice of highlighting engaging pictures and text to grab the attention of a user. What clickbait articles usually lack, therefore, is substance: if the main purpose of the article is to generate views, then why would the validity of content matter? According to an article on journalism.com, Mitchell et al. (2013) claim that seventy percent of those who ever click on news stories say that a major reason they do so is due to perceived interest in topic (pp. 8). In this case, if the topic of a fake news article comes across as more exciting or engaging than a real news source that isn’t so sensationalized, there’s a good chance it’ll attract the interest of a Facebook user over the latter.
The problem with news on Facebook, then, is deciphering what is “clickbait” and what is real, valid news. In interpreting news information, we must consider the way ignorance plays into the spread and dissemination of false news, or “fake news”. In an article by Kenyon (2016) for the BBC, they highlight researcher Robert Proctor’s study of the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking, and found that “ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue” (pp. 15). In not fully understanding all components of a concept, the way a news article is framed can have significant influence over a social media user’s interpretation of a news article. Obfuscation of facts is common practice amongst special interest groups looking to generate confusing about an issue, and is referred to as agnotology (Proctor, 2016, pp. 5).
The sheer amount of information online makes it difficult to decipher what is actual news and what is perceived to be real news. Vulnerabilities in online news media are often targeted by subcultural online groups, promoting false or inflammatory information and capitalising on the ignorance of social media users. This type of information can be referred to as “fake news”, and can be expressed both by corporate entities, as well as disseminated from subcultural online groups propagating their own agendas. Many of these subcultural groups have increased their visibility online, and are able to promote certain ideologies that might not have been deemed socially acceptable by mainstream media, such as anti-feminism and white nationalism. Through multi channel media, these subversive ideas are now able to enter public discourse (Marwick & Lewis, 2017, pg. 11). Certain individuals, referred to as “trolls”, are complacent in this practice, as outlined in the following passage by Marwick and Lewis (2017) in their article, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online:
“Trolling the mainstream media to exploit its penchants for spectacle, novelty, and poignancy is not only a favored pastime for trolls but is often used as a justiﬁcation for trolling behavior. This enables trolls to maintain a quasi-moral argument that, by trolling, they are exposing the hypocrisy, ignorance, and stupidity of the mainstream media.” (pg. 7)
With news media becoming increasingly sensationalized, trolls can adopt the same rhetoric in their discourse, thus mimicking the tone of real news sources.
Due to the increase in exposure to news online, social media users on platforms like Facebook are tasked with interpreting real news from “fake news” on a near daily basis. Ignorance of certain issues and concepts, however, makes the task of determining the validity of a news source increasingly difficult, and enables a false sense of expertise amongst social media users thinking they’ve been given all information regarding a news event or issue. In our interpretation of current events online, it is important to keep in mind the way news is presented on social media platforms like Facebook, and question the news content we’re interpreting in order to prevent the spread of misinformation online.
Anderson, M & Caumont, A. (2014). How social media is reshaping news. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/24/how-social-media-is-reshaping-news/
Kenyon, G. (2016). The man who studies the spread of ignorance. British Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160105-the-man-who-studies-the-spread-of-ignorance
Marwick, A & Lewis, R. (2017). Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online. Data & Society. Retrieved from: http://posiel.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Media-Manipulation-and-Disinformation-Online-1.pdf
Mitchell, A et al. (2013). The Facebook News Experience. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.journalism.org/2013/10/24/the-facebook-news-experience/
Oremus, W. (2016). How Many People Really Get Their News From Facebook? Slate. Retrieved from: www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2016/12/how_many_people_really_get_their_news_from_facebook.html