The 2016 US Presidential election was an unrelenting bloodbath — filled to the brim with scandal, defamation, and an overwhelming sense of chaos. The brutality of the election reflects a nation marked by immense ideological division, as much of America continues to wrestle with the new realities of the Trump era. Yet, out of the many unprecedented phenomena to emerge from the past year, one that has especially gripped the national consciousness is the concept of “fake news.” Perhaps more than any other form of recent political fallout, fake news promises to continue to breed discord and mistrust in America unless fully understood and addressed.
In keeping with the general ethos of election-related issues, the exact nature of so-called fake news has been hotly contested by the US media, government, and public. Interestingly, during the campaign season itself, the term “fake news” was not particularly widespread. Its usage only began to spike in the immediate aftermath of the election results, as media outlets and political scientists sought to dissect the forces behind Donald Trump’s stunning victory. One specific element quickly seized upon was the prevalence of falsified news stories concerning both candidates that had circulated the Internet throughout the course of the election. These inaccurate narratives ran rampant during 2016, with the most infamous example being the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy — in which people were led to believe that a pizza parlor in Washington DC doubled as the headquarters of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her staffers. Although clearly preposterous, the distribution of this story had dire consequences, as a North Carolina man entered the restaurant in early December with the purpose “self-investigat[ing]” the theory and ended up firing several gunshots. To be clear, it is stories such as these, which are completely untrue and purposefully created to mimic credible journalism, that are the true representations of fake news.
On the other hand, the term “fake news” has more recently been co-opted by both President Trump and some members of the conservative faction to take on an entirely different meaning. Indeed, since early January, Trump has tweeted the phrase over 30 times in reference to mainstream media outlets reporting on his and his administration’s controversial actions. Accordingly, many Americans now refer to traditionally respected news outlets, such as the New York Times, NBC, and the Washington Post, as the “real” purveyors of fake news. All notions of partisanship aside, this idea is patently false. The definition of fake news refers to untrue, non-journalistic stories solely created to generate ad revenue; it does not encompass the critiquing of our President by media outlets that are committed to reporting the truth.
Perhaps more than any other form of recent political fallout, fake news promises to continue to breed discord and mistrust in America unless fully understood and addressed.
One common misconception about fake news is that it is a brand-new issue brought about by the advent of the Internet and the explosion of social media sites. On the contrary, fake news has existed right alongside print media since the very beginning. Such historic examples include the popularity of yellow journalism during the Gilded Age, as well as the false horror stories about Jews propagated by the Nazi Party during their ascension to power.
However, it is true that use of social media and the Internet in general has exacerbated the presence of fake news around the world. The power of these tools (especially social media) is crucial to the spread of fake news, as they enable the instantaneous sharing of stories and information to all corners of the globe. Moreover, with the relative ease of setting up seemingly legitimate websites, the Internet has made it easier than ever for falsified stories to masquerade as credible sources. As a result of these factors, the past few years have seen fake news rise to previously unmatched levels of pervasiveness and subsequent impact. In fact, places such as the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Germany, Spain, and Italy were all plagued by the presence of fake news during their 2016 elections to devastating effect. One thing is clear: Fake news is here to stay, and it’s everywhere.
But why is fake news so successful? It’s easier than ever to check the validity of a news report with a quick Google background search, so how can it be that clearly untrue stories continue to influence the views of people around the world? Much of it is down to the effects of basic human psychology. First of all, the very nature of fake news preys upon our susceptibility to two common biases: implicit bias and confirmation bias. Implicit bias deals with the idea that, as humans, we instinctively sort people into different categories. In turn, we are more likely to trust the claims of individuals that we believe belong to our own group as opposed to those of another group (i.e. liberals vs. conservatives). Meanwhile, confirmation bias refers to our tendency to obtain information that confirms our own prior knowledge and beliefs — while also dismissing the facts that contradict these beliefs. Thus, when left- or right-leaning fake news stories are circulated within specific ideological groups, the group’s members are prone to believing them because a) the story has been shared by trusted people within their own group and b) the story reinforces previously-held beliefs about “other” categories of people. This ever-tightening feedback loop of biases is how people come to believe outlandish tales such as the Comet Ping Pong conspiracy or the numerous reports that Hillary Clinton was suffering from epilepsy.
Augmenting the combined cyclical effect of these biases is the omnipresent use of social media sites. As in real life, we tend to sort ourselves into online groups that share the same political views as our own. When our online friends share news articles amongst the group, we are more likely to trust the contents because they are being distributed by our associates. Therefore, we form our own echo chambers online, in which groups of like-minded people constantly reinforce each other’s beliefs by spreading information that conforms to what the group already believes. These echo chambers also decrease the possibility that people will debunk the fake news being spread, as everyone within the bubble tends to agree with one another. Yet, not only does social media make it easier for ideological groups to form and communicate, it also exponentially increases the amount of biased information we are exposed to. Whereas information used to travel by slower means such as print newspapers, sharing fake news stories on social media to an echo chamber containing thousands, or even millions, only takes a few seconds. The result is a self-sustaining rotation of fake news.
Although the country as a whole has only started paying attention to the proliferation of fake news in the past few months, the fact is that it has already inflicted extensive damage both within the US and abroad. The case that immediately springs to mind is the 2016 presidential election, in which it seemed that both candidates were the victims of endless and untrue accusations. Indeed, a Buzzfeed analysis found that, in terms of total online engagement, fake election news outperformed 19 major US news outlets combined during 2016. Although fake news absolutely eroded the public’s confidence in both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, researchers do not believe that its presence swung the election either way. It is indisputable, however, that the dual realities created by fake news have contributed immensely to the widening ideological gap in American society.
Across the pond, fake news made even more of an impact during the Brexit vote that took place this past June. In this polarizing referendum, economists have found that fake news most likely did play a large role in swaying voters, as the false narrative of failed immigration integration in the UK was the main argument for the winning “leave” campaign. Thus, while it may not be as tangible in America as some other countries, the corrosive effect of fake news upon the perceived facts of political issues is terrifying real.
As both social media and the Internet continue to rise in use around the world, fake news — along with its devastating consequences — is not going away anytime soon. What’s more, it doesn’t seem that the current American government is all that interested in fighting against fake news, as President Trump and his administration continue to peddle false narratives, such as the notion that millions of illegal immigrants voted during the Presidential election. Therefore, it is imperative that other factions of America, including the media, the private sector, and the greater public, actively combat fake news wherever possible. Already, Facebook and Google have taken stands against the spread of fake news, with both companies recently adding fake news “warning” labels to stories that appear on their sites. Researchers at universities all over the world have also joined the fight against fake news. At the University of Western Ontario, computer scientists and engineers have built a machine-learning algorithm that is 86 percent successful at filtering out fake news from legitimate articles.
Although researchers and companies can do their part in battling fake news, the real difference will ultimately come down to the actions of the public. Whether or not people continue to consume fake news articles without checking the facts is entirely up to them, no matter what algorithms or labels are put in place. Thus, the public must be active in promoting truth over fiction. This could include anything from supporting the work of reputable journalism outlets to gently policing friend groups from sharing untrue stories. But most importantly, we must be open to having dialogues about political issues with others. The only way to break down echo chambers is to seek out and converse with those who may not necessarily agree with our viewpoints. It may not be easy, but the alternative is a world in which the truth becomes increasingly difficult to uncover.