In the 2016 United States presidential election false news took center stage in a completely unprecedented fashion. Falsified news stories and propaganda have existed since the beginning of the printing press, and likely even before that, but what became new was the ability for bad actors to publish outright lies, then use tools build by social media conglomerates (intended to sell you just the right thing) to plant misinformation on a highly targeted and distributed fashion.
The same tools that allowed brands like Warby Parker and Glossier to target the exact demographic of purchasers they think will most likely buy their goods (young urbanites with newly disposable income) allowed foreign governments, white nationalists, and disingenuous political actors to target who they thought would most likely carry out their strategies.
A recent survey conducted by Statista states that 41% of adults in the United States get their news from Facebook and social media, daily. According to the same source, 52% also believe that online news sites regularly report false stories regularly, and that 64% believe that false news causes a great deal of confusion. By Facebook’s own numbers, 126 million American Facebook users were exposed to Russian propaganda in the 2016 election.
To combat the deeply toxic nature of false news, platforms need to take an editorial stand, like Facebook did earlier this week by banning white nationalist and separatist content off of their platforms. Even further, we need to harden ourselves from false news, through the education system, and better teach our students news literacy.
News literacy, as defined by the Center for News Literacy, is “designed to help students develop critical thinking skills in order to judge the reliability and credibility of information, whether it comes via print, television or the Internet. This is a particularly important skill in the Digital Age, as everyone struggles to deal with information overload and the difficulty in determining the authenticity of reports.”
If schools were to incorporate lessons of news literacy into their curriculum, it would equip their graduates with the ability to think critically about the information that they receive, and where it’s coming from. In an increasingly digitized world where remote working and freelancing are becoming standards of practice, being able to give a critical eye to what you are being told gives one the ability to discern between potential propaganda and actual fact.
In our current distributed, internet, information overload-scape that we live in, even non-political actors are incentivized to create inauthentic news stories. This might sound less scary than what we see when content is made maliciously, but if counted is incentivized to be made solely for what gets clicks and not what is accurate, then what is at stake is an information landscape where fact and fiction are completely indiscernible.
In the book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by Jill Abramson, we are introduced to a case study as to how false news stories can be produced solely for the purposes of profit, and how they can have real world outcomes. “Across the world, in the small Macedonian town of Veles, a legion of young adult online marketers have developed a vibrant local industry of pro-Trump fake news websites with thriving audiences that they had built on Facebook into lucrative ventures.”
The book goes on to tell us that, “Silverman would later visit Veles and meet the internet marketing guru who had instructed the kids. He told the Buzzfeed reporter that these were his stand out students and that he was proud of them. He had not taught them to explicitly publish fake news, but rather to do what works… Some of their post were getting nearly half a million interactions on Facebook, meaning they had appeared in the News Feeds of millions of users.”
The point of the excerpt concludes with, “‘The beautiful thing about the Macedonians,’ Silverman explained, ‘is that they are the perfect expression of the social media publishing economy.’ Teenagers concocting fake news stories could make as much as $10,000 a month from the advertising they attracted. The Macedonians were succeeding because they gauged the desires of their readership and addressed them directly.”
Even if platforms like Google and Facebook were able to clean up the worst kinds of false news stories, there will still be a market for people who need a paycheck to create websites that publish content that is at the very least click-baity, or at the very worse toxic and intentionally divisive. Because these types of disingenuous stories will likely continue to exist, we need to better prepare how to spot and ignore them.
There are nonprofits and organizations working on this solution now, but as with everything, progress only goes as fast as it can be funded. Recently, the News Literacy Project received a $5 million grant from the Knight Foundation to help the organization expand its efforts. The organization’s programs have reached 122,000 students nationally. Google and Facebook have both announced plans to spend $300 million to support journalism. The problem, however, is that tech companies like Google and Facebook have damaged journalism to the tune of billions of dollars, not millions. If the false news and news illiteracy problem is really going to get solved, those numbers are going to have to swell.
On some level, YouTube is getting ahead of this problem by providing informational context below videos about climate change (a hotbed for false news) hosted on its site by pointing viewers towards Wikipedia. On the other end, the site is mired in its own controversy surrounding algorithmic rabbit holes recommending conspiracy theory videos to users, causing some to believe them as fact. The problem of news illiteracy is a massive undertaking that we as a society will be reckoning with for the foreseeable future, but if our education system could pick up where tech companies lack, we will at least be able to defend ourselves.