The idea of fabricating stories to present as fact, to control public opinion is an old one. During the 2016 Presidential election, the notion of “fake news” hit mainstream culture. Using social media, Russia spread propaganda and fake news stories, influencing the US election. Macedonian youths churned out fake Pro-Trump stories and made a fortune doing it.
A significant impact with the emergence of fake news is the public’s ability to separate fact from fiction. Stanford University released a study finding students had “a dismaying” inability to spot fake news stories. BuzzFeed surveyed 39,000 high schoolers, and those results were likewise troubling. After the 2016 US election, many schools began teaching children about media literacy. Fake news has increased to such an extent, some lawmakers want mandatory media literacy classes. That takes care of the kids, but what about the remainder of society? The proliferation of fake news has been so dramatic, that it’s now at a crisis-point.
Trump has attempted to discredit legitimate news organizations critical of his agendas. Media outlets from The Washington Post, to The New York Times, to CNN, amongst others have all faced his ire. Yet, each of these esteemed organizations has criticized his policies. Attacking the credibility of legitimate news organizations is a political ploy. Deeming authentic journalism “fake news” encourages public distrust for the free press. In addition to distrust, it also creates confusion. Attacks on the press and other institutions key to a democracy are problematic, to say the least.
The advantages of social media are unquestionable. Likewise, hitherto, it has become the go-to source for news and information. Yet, in our brave new digital age, fake news has circulated on every major social media platform. In fact, it’s become so dire, that “epidemic” is a prevalent term used in the same sentence. Facebook and Twitter, have announced measures they say will help combat the spread of fake news. Both platforms have faced intense scrutiny for their roles in spreading misinformation. However, a study released on June 14 reports a decline in social media usage for news. In particular, young people are using messaging services like WhatsApp for news consumption. But, the fact remains that the easiest tool to spread misinformation is social media.
Even WhatsApp has now become a vehicle for fake news. In India, several people have been killed, after fake child kidnapping claims appeared. The fake stories caused such hysteria, that police traveled to rural areas, dispelling the claims. India is by far, the messaging services largest market with 200 million active users.
Most discussion surrounding fake news has involved its influence on political outcomes. But, the risk to brands and financial markets is also causing concern. Major corporations have become targets of fake news campaigns with increasing regularity. Companies like Microsoft and Costco, have fallen prey to such campaigns. An Atlanta-area Starbucks briefly closed after a fake news post went viral. Circulating on Facebook, it claimed that a barista was poisoning white customers orders.
Not only is there the immediate financial damage, but it also erodes trust for a brand. An entire cottage industry has emerged online, dedicated to the damaging impacts on business. Likewise, financial markets are susceptible to highs and lows in a heartbeat, as is. Adding fake news stories into an already volatile mixture could have catastrophic effects.
The death hoax is a familiar example of the fake news story. Sony Music apologized to Britney Spears, after an official tweet claiming her death. The company’s official Twitter account had been hacked. Suffice to say, Britney and her management were not amused.
Several celebrities have faced fake news stories attempting to discredit them. For instance, a news story circulated on Facebook with a headline stating that Tina Turner was thankful for Donald Trump. Said post was then flagged by users as a possible fabrication, part of the platform’s new measures. Outrage amongst her fans ensued, despite there being no evidence to the story.
Extremist groups from ISIS to white supremacists have used social media as a recruitment tool. Far-right groups have now accelerated their tactics by using fake news. A new study from Oxford University notes how algorithms can be used to distribute misinformation. Researchers found that Twitter and Facebook were the preferred platforms. This makes sense, seeing as these platforms have no editorial departments to judge news credibility.
The impacts and implications of fake news are far-reaching throughout society. In our hyper-digital age, vigilance seems the best weapon to combat fake news. We need to educate our children and inform ourselves. Media literacy is a crucial tool in these times we live in. If your “Spider-Sense” is tingling, listen to it. The Spider-Sense is always right.