At the turn of the 21st century

At the turn of the 21st century, social media became a prominent component of American culture, changing many aspects of people’s lives. Over time, social media evolved and acquired uses other than being purely a way to socialize, with many people depending on it to provide a convenient way to get updated on news, some relying on social media websites almost exclusively. According to Matsa and Shearer (2018) of Pew Research Center, nearly “two-thirds of American adults (68%) say they at least occasionally get news on social media” (p.1) . In the document Social Media and the Movement of Ideas, Edward Kessler discusses how society changed from relying on “the account of their leaders” to “individuals communicat[ing] their own interpretations” (p. 10). He explains how on social media sites such as Twitter, there are no formal editors, so it is left to the individual to decide if content is in fact even accurate. Regardless of its inconsistent reliability, the information is being spread at record speeds, and for the average American it may be overwhelming, even impossible, to sort through the copious amounts of information on social media to uncover the facts. This, in turn, makes it difficult for citizens to make informed political decisions and participate competently in the democratic system. This situation poses the question: To what extent has social media contributed to the falsification of political news in the United States?

Pew Research center reported that in “January 2016, 44% of U.S. adults reported having learned about the 2016 presidential election in the past week from social media” (Mitchell, A., et al, 2016, p.1), which was greater than the percent relying on both local and national print newspapers. The number of Americans getting their political news from social media is increasing as the popularity of social media increases, which makes the lack of credibility of this news a pressing matter. If millions of Americans are receiving their news from unreliable sources, it will create a culture of misinformed citizens and hinder the integrity of the democratic process as many of its participants will be mislead. Even though some social media users claim that it is a useful source for instantaneous news, an increasing dependence and trust of these convenient sites for authentic political news content is causing falsified news to be spread by the American consumers on these sites which inhibits the public’s ability to make informed decisions.

Despite the fact that there are many negative aspects of using social media to obtain political news, some social media users claim that speed of this news outweighs these drawbacks. One thing that is often unavailable on today’s politically polarized television news channels is a diverse set of opinions, however, consumers readily access this through social media platforms. Users of Twitter and Facebook “reported encountering a range of opinions” when searching for news online (Wihbey, 2015, p.4). Social media websites not only provide many different perspectives of political events but also makes it convenient for its users to explore opinions other than their own, diminishing the toxic divide between the two ends of the political spectrum. Social media also provides Americans with practically instantaneous news about world events, especially regarding tragedies. For example, in 2010 when Twitter user Frederic Dupoux shared that there had just been an earthquake in Haiti “everyone was alerted, news groups tried to get to Haiti and charity organizations started sending help packages,”(Garlick, 2015, p.4). Tweeting this news into cyberspace alerted America about a disaster that would plague Haiti for years and enabled people to contribute emergency funds if they wished to do so. Today, interactions between politicians are often not as formal as they used to be, partly due to the increased popularity of social media websites, on which many of these interactions take place. For instance, incumbent president Donald Trump is a frequent user of Twitter and often tweets “what goes on inside [his] mind”(Pickard, 2016, p.2) on his personal Twitter account. Furthermore, Democrat Hillary Clinton “has used social media to hit back at Mr. Trump’s criticisms” (p.7) on her Twitter account. Social media now provides what could be considered a window into many political interactions and into what a politician may be thinking in that moment. To some social media users, the swiftness of its news is more important than its potential inaccuracy.

Researchers who have conducted studies on trends among populations have seen a change regarding how the majority of the population receives most of their political news. They have noticed that a portion of the population receives their news from sources that are arguably not credible as opposed to sources that are. Before the age of social media, many Americans looked to scholars and professionals to receive their news about important events. A prime example of this is Margaret Thatcher’s (1989) Speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Thatcher, who was a Prime Minister of Britain, discussed climate change and the fact that “the thinning of the Ozone Layer, and the loss of precious species” are pressing issues that need to be addressed by the entire world (p.102). One of the most important aspects of her speech is that she was arguably qualified to make these assertions due to her political position and the fact that she worked alongside scientists to generate research to support her claim. Today, many people are still discussing this topic, however, because of social media, they can present their ideas as facts even if they are inaccurate.

Marc Morano, director of communications for Senator Jim Inhofe, posted a short video to Facebook where he claimed that climate experts are incorrect “because there are hundreds of factors influencing Earth’s climate, and that carbon dioxide ‘is one of these factors that gets essentially drowned out, and you can’t distinguish its effect from natural variability’”(Nuccitelli, 2018, p.11). However, as illustrated by a graphic from Bloomberg, his claim is false because “we’re now warming global temperatures more than 20 times faster than Earth’s fastest natural climate changes,” (p.12). Additionally, a recent study has shown that “scientists have observed human fingerprints all over climate change, most recently in the atmosphere,” (p.12). Despite this, Morano’s video was viewed over five million times and has been shared 75,000 times. Even though “expert consensus on human-caused global warming is between 90 and 100%” (p.5), Morano’s ideas still reached and possibly influenced a large audience of people via social media. Furthermore, despite the fact that he is arguably unqualified to present his ideas as facts because he is not a scientist, Americans still listened to and shared his ideas regardless. The quality of political information Americans are receiving has declined because the credibility source they receive it from has changed drastically over the past few decades.

Social media, which has given a voice to political groups who spread news based on false premises and allowed them to expand their reach, hindering the public’s ability to make informed political decisions, has also provided a platform for people to share their opinions and for social movements to take place and given a voice to a variety of issues. For instance, social media has been essential to campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, which aims to combat police brutality aimed at African Americans, and the Me Too movement, which gave women who have been sexually assaulted a place to share their stories. Moreover, about 65% of adults in America believe that “the statement ‘social media highlights important issues that might not get a lot of attention otherwise’ describes these platforms very or somewhat well,” (Anderson, Toor, Rainie, & Smith, 2018, p.15). However, not all social media users have positive intentions, some of them aim to exploit the platform by spreading false political news. For example, a post that gained more than a million views on Facebook in 2018 that resulted in “sparking anger and fueling religious hate and division” claimed that “a Muslim refugee [was] ruining a religious statue in Italy” (Hutchinson, 2018, p.15 & 17).

However, in actuality this was a video taken in Algeria of an incident in late 2017 where the man in the video “attacked the statue on the Ain El Fouara fountain because it depicts a naked woman, which he believes is indecent - the same statue has been vandalized several times for the same reason” (p.17). This is just one of the many occasions where a group or an individual falsifies a story to make it fit their political narrative and agenda. This impedes the ability of American citizens to make educated political choices because a large portion of the information they receive is false. According to a study, “People can actually be influenced by what they see on (social media),” (Ricker, 2016, p.5). More specifically, one of the main conclusions of this study was that “[millenials are] undeniably influenced by what they see online” whether they view it intentionally or not (p.7). It has already been established that fake news regarding politics is present on social media websites, so if people’s ideology can be influenced by information that they do not even view intentionally, the presence of false information is that much more detrimental. Moreover, this impedes their ability to make informed decisions in the realm of politics. Easy accessibility combined with ill intentions of many people has hindered the public's ability to make informed political choices.

Despite the wide reach social media has, there are still plausible ways to help eradicate false political news from these sites. For example, Facebook has stated that they will begin implementing methods to fact check the information being posted on their site. Facebook claimed that they would outsource to fact-checking organizations such as Snopes and Politifact “to identify problematic news stories and flag them as disputed” so its users would be aware that they should be mindful because the story is potentially untrustworthy. The site also explained that they “will also penalize suspect stories so that they are less likely to appear in people's news feeds”, suppressing the spread of false news stories (Farrell, 2017, p.2). However, the potential solution is not without its faults. For instance, “if an unsupervised machine-learning process determined that conservative political orientation provided a strong signal that the news on a particular website was untrustworthy, and started penalizing conservative sites accordingly” (p.6), this could possibly create a very controversial situation because the algorithm would begin sensoring just one side of the political spectrum .

Moreover, even without controversy, these algorithms may not be capable of separating real from fake news in “politically muddy situations” (p.7) where the real story lacks clarity. An alternate solution, as opposed to attempting to manage fake news once it has already been posted, is to remove some of the profiles that are responsible for it. For example, Twitter has also introduced a solution to this problem by “removing bots and fake profiles at a higher rate than ever” to prevent them from spreading false news. Since many fake profiles are robots, they can post false news at all hours of the day without taking a break, so removing them would most likely take out a large portion of the fake news present on Twitter (Hutchinson, 2018, p.5).

Likewise, many people use the number of followers a person has to “determine which voices are actually worth listening to”, so if individuals are inflating their numbers by using fake profiles to gain followers, “it erodes the value of platform audience” (Hutchinson, 2018, p.25). Additionally, a study showed that “ 9% and 15% of active Twitter accounts are bots….that translates to nearly 48 million bot accounts”, so the aforementioned individuals could potentially inflate their number of followers by several million (Newberg, 2017, p.3). Even though many bot accounts have malicious intent, a Twitter spokesperson claimed there are some positives to these accounts, “like those that automatically alert people of natural disasters…or from customer service points of view" (p.8), so deleting them would be a potential drawback. Twitter’s solution is likely the best option because its cons are minimal in comparison to those of Facebook’s solution and it would be relatively easy to implement, whether it's through a computer program or algorithm. The solutions that popular social media networks are working to employ are not without faults, but they are a step in the right direction in ridding their sites of fake news.

The citizens of the united states have a right to factual political information, even though the way this information is received is constantly changing. If false news continues to be spread, a culture of misinformation may be created and the ability of citizens to make informed political decisions may be compromised. To prevent this, there are possible solutions such as creating algorithms for fact-checking and removing bot accounts, even if these solutions have their faults.

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