Fake News is a Real Problem

Many people like and share thousands of pieces of false information daily. Who’s to blame? Who should be held responsible?


courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fake news is everywhere. Recently, the spread of fake news has caused upset over safe and effective vaccinations, and turmoil in the US government.

Elijah Villanueva, guest contributor

With an expanding technological world full of information, the way we communicate and present information has drastically changed over the past three decades. With this, it is easier than ever to access the news and get information, but at the same time it is also as easy to spread fake news and misinformation. Fake news can affect major political elections, posing a threat to democracy. The spread of this misinformation makes it more difficult to discern what is real and what is a façade. To put it in perspective, if someone controls what news you see and believe, are those really your opinions anymore? This manipulation is why fake news is so dangerous. It leaves countless people misinformed and unfairly influenced. Everyone has a part to play to combat this problem, from technology companies to news media outlets and we the people. However, the question that comes up, who is responsible, and who should be held accountable? Obviously, all of us are at fault, but tech companies, with all the profits they make through advertising and online traffic when fake news spreads on their domain, it’s questionable if tech companies are really doing their best to stop the spread of this misinformation, even though they have the money, power, and resources to do so. Tech companies should be the most responsible when preventing and monitoring fake news to contribute to the cause, they are the solution (as long as they are willing to contribute), and they can work simultaneously with news media to provide real news and fact checking on their platforms. The consumers are also responsible, but to a much smaller extent because trying to convince and control what other people repost and share as a consumer is hard compared to tech companies who have full control over their domain and platform; but we should still put in an effort of creating a fact checking culture for online consumers.

The tech industry is home to many of the wealthiest businesses and corporations in the world, so there’s no doubt they have an excessive amount of power and influence, meaning they have the resources to contribute even more to combat the spread of fake news. The Brexit decision back in 2016 was majorly influenced by fake news spread on social media platforms.

According to the investigative reporter Carole Cadwalladr, in her TED Talk, “Facebook’s role in Brexit – And the Threat to Democracy,” she points out that Facebook seemed to have openly advertised this misinformation and propaganda to gullible groups and demographics, warping the outcome of the decision by swinging votes by these ads, and Facebook did nothing about it, with Cadwalladr stating:

“This is a lie, it’s a total lie. Turkey is not joining the European Union. There’s not even any discussions of it joining the European Union. And most of us, we never saw these ads, because we were not the target of them. ‘Vote Leave’ identified a tiny sliver of people who it identified as persuadable, and they saw them. And the only reason we are seeing these now is because parliament forced Facebook to hand them over.”

The fact that Facebook wasn’t willing to share this information the first time they were asked, and had to be forced by Britain’s Parliament shows they aren’t doing everything in their power to stop the spread of misinformation because if they were, Facebook would’ve reported this to parliament willingly right when they were aware of it. A possible solution is that federal governments should instead step in if tech companies are not willing to cooperate, such as Britain’s Parliament did with Facebook. There should be consequences to these tech companies’ actions, so they will think twice with facilitating the spread of fake news for profit.”

Some companies are somewhat contributing to fight this issue, such as Google who is beginning to implement and spread their fact checking system on their popular search engine; however, it comes to question whether this is too little, too late. In partnership with the fact-checking site Snopes.com, Google has been planning to expand this feature, and hopefully in due time globally, according to the site usatoday.com on their video titled, “Google Will Start Fact-Checking Fake News Stories” provided by Newsy by Grant Suneson, claims that Google will still keep conspiracy websites and links when searching up rumors, meaning their fact checking feature will barely be featured. Google should instead take down or at least put red flags on these websites instead of a measly fact check icon from Snopes. The Google CEO has good intentions however, acknowledging that “the amount of content confronting people online can be overwhelming. And unfortunately, not all of it is factual or true, making it hard for people to distinguish fact from fiction.” However, they should still be doing more and being stricter on their platform, such as blacklisting malicious fake news websites, completely defeating the spread of fake news on their platform as the fake news wouldn’t have a chance to exist. Although some may argue the increased government and technology company involvement in censoring fake news violates the first Amendment, I argue that fake news is potentially harmful and very dangerous, supporting the “clear and present danger” interpretation of the first Amendment where harmful speech is deemed unconstitutional by the supreme court in the court case Schenck v. United States of 1919. One may ask, what danger does fake news bring? According to the article “Fake or Real? How to Self Check the News and Get the Facts” by Wynne Davis, Davis states that “Fake news stories can have real-life consequences.

Back in August 2016… Facebook replaced the staff in charge of Facebook’s trending page with an algorithm, and the algorithm “regularly presented satire, conspiracy theories, and made-up articles as real news.

On Sunday, police said a man with a rifle who claimed to be ‘self-investigating’ a baseless online conspiracy theory entered a Washington, D.C., pizzeria and fired the weapon inside the restaurant.“ The present danger here is obvious. A man used a rifle with the intent of hurting someone, prevailing as an existential threat to the innocent people in the pizzeria by “firing the weapon inside” (Davis). This man was led by a notion that was based off fake news, meaning that if the fake news didn’t exist, this incident would have never occurred.

Mainstream news outlets are doing their best to present the real news to the world, such as journalist Ali Velshi in the YouTube video titled, “How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World | Ali Velshi | TEDxQueensU” where he feels that it is now a journalist job to differentiate real news and fake news for the mass media. Velshi, as well as other journalists and news outlets are all doing their best to fight this problem, as their career and passion revolve around giving the real and legitimate news. To fully utilize both the power of technology and the dedication of journalists they must work together. Back in August 2016, according to Suneson, Facebook replaced the staff in charge of Facebook’s trending page with an algorithm, and the algorithm “regularly presented satire, conspiracy theories, and made-up articles as real news.” If Facebook invested more time in creating a better algorithm that is in line with credible news sources, they could’ve prevented the spread due to their faulty algorithm. Now Facebook is at the forefront of this issue. Instead, tech giants such as Facebook should work side by side, only advertising real and credible news on trending pages and news tabs, compared to algorithms that will put anything on the front pages of social media sites whether it is fake or real. Opposers will yet again call this censorship, such as Ted Cruz who “criticized Twitter, saying it made ‘the unilateral decision to censor’ the Post, claiming its policy enforcement allows social-media companies to dictate to news publishers ‘what stories they can publish.’” Mainstream news outlets should be held accountable however, and the outlet should face the consequences due to how much harm it brings, even if it means a head CEO must block your tweet. These journalists need to understand the effect and influence they have on their audience. Velshi explains the consequences that discourage journalists from spreading misinformation, whether it be unintentional or not. Velshi recalls when he accidentally posted misinformation in the form of a mistype, leading to audiences misinterpreting the news. If this alone was the consequence of unintentional misinformation, the punishment should be more severe if the news outlet are intentionally spreading fake news to pursue an agenda.

Opposers will yet again call this censorship, such as Ted Cruz who “criticized Twitter, saying it made ‘the unilateral decision to censor’ the Post, claiming its policy enforcement allows social-media companies to dictate to news publishers ‘what stories they can publish.’”

Instead, tech companies and news outlets should work simultaneously and check each other to deliver real and factual news to the consumer, where misinformation is vanquished and legitimate news media outlets once again get the spotlight to deliver real news, helping real journalists to return to how it was so journalists can be” … following other stories and giving you new journalism and telling you stories about new things…” (Velshi). The drowning out and lack of traffic for credible news stories is also worrying, where Velshi claims that “in 2016 of the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook they had 8.7 million shares, comments, reactions; of the top 20 real news stories by major news organizations, they had 1.7 million fewer.” If Facebook were to somehow block these fake news posts in the first place, consumers will have only credible news stories to be directed to, making it a net win overall for both consumers as well as journalists, putting legitimate news stories back in the forefront.

Despite all this, the only immediate action we can take, as consumers of the media, is to personally develop a culture revolving around fact checking. The reason that fake news spreads so fast is that most social media users are reluctant to check if something is correct before they reshare it and post it online. To create this habit of fact checking we must teach the younger generation to differentiate fake news from real news. It is apparent that the younger generation seems to have a difficult time with this, and as they are the future of our society it is important to teach them fact checking skills at a younger age, which can then lead them to teach the generation after them and so on. NPR’s article, “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” by Camila Domonoske, Domonoske investigates on how and why students are unable to differentiate real from fake news, and why it’s important as ever for us to teach them how now. Domonoske uses Stanford researchers’ studies as reference, calling the future generation “very ill-informed.” This research says that:

“students displayed a ‘stunning and dismaying consistency’ in their responses, the researchers wrote, getting duped again and again. They weren’t looking for high-level analysis of data but just a ‘reasonable bar’ of, for instance, telling fake accounts from real ones, activist groups from neutral sources and ads from articles. ‘Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media, they are equally savvy about what they find there,’ the researchers wrote. ‘Our work shows the opposite.” (Domonoske)

This is a frightening thought, especially keeping in mind how younger students tend to be influenced by the internet more as they are continuously exposed to it. The only reasonable way to counter this is to teach them when they are still young and to integrate fact checking into their education. Sam Wineburg, a Stanford professor and lead author of this study proposes his solution on how to involve students in fact checking while also training them, stating that “some schools have filters directing students to valid sources, which doesn’t give them practice learning to evaluate sources for themselves. The solution, they write, is to teach students—or, really, all Internet users—to read like fact checkers” (Domonoske). Instead of spoon-feeding credible sources to them, we must instead use resources to teach them, helping them compare real and fake news and keeping them skeptical with anything they read. Website allaboutexplorers.com purposely presents false and fictional information to train students not to believe everything they read online. On the “For teachers” page on the website, it provides resources and teaching strategies for their students, such as their treasure hunt feature which lets students practice researching for credible sources on their own, as well as use their logical reasoning. Although it does present misinformation, the purpose of this website existing is for teaching purposes, and it blatantly accepts it is a non-credible source, stating on their about page, “So we set out to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile…while many of the facts are true or based on truth, many inaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdity are mixed in indiscriminately. As such, it is important that you do not use this site as a source of reference for your own research!” It may sound contradicting to support this site for its inaccuracies, however it accepts its information is at fault with the purposing of educating the student masses. This use of the website seems to be effective according to the New York Times Article “In Web Age, Library Job Gets Update” by Motoko Rich, when librarian Stephania Rosalia used the allaboutexplorers.com website for elementary and middle school students. Many students fell victim and believed the site, until one of Rosalia’s students, “Nozimakon Omonullaeva, 11, noticed something odd on a page about Christopher Columbus. ‘It says the Indians enjoyed the cellphones and computers brought by Columbus!’Nozimakon exclaimed, pointing at the screen. ‘That’s wrong’” (Rich). This revelation the students had was an important step for their education, Rich stating that” It was an essential discovery in a lesson about the reliability — or lack thereof — of information on the Internet.” If we expose students to this type of learning experience, where they witness firsthand how deceptive fake news is and how they should stay skeptical with anything they read while fact checking, the future has the potential of being well informed, even if the existence of fake news continues to somehow loom around.

Fake news is a danger that will persist if tech companies, news outlets, and we the consumers, do not do anything. The fact that tech companies hold the power to eliminate fake news to a large extent and still haven’t done as much as they could means they should be held accountable to the highest degree, even if it means politicians need to get involved. Arguments against this sentiment are unaware of the real-world dangers fake news brings, and the only way real news can beat fake news is if we give these real journalists as much attention as possible to push fake news away from the spotlight. We must also contribute to solve this problem, remaining skeptical of what we read online, focusing on fact checking before believing and teaching this skill to others so we don’t become as gullible as fake news creators want us to be.