With another US Presidential election on the way in 2020, we can expect the debate around fake news to once again ramp up, and become a key focus of discussion as we look at how political influence spreads online.
But what if fake news isn't actually the problem?
Sure, it would be easier to be able to attribute the broader shifts in the political landscape to lies and deceit online - that would help explain the more polarizing movements which seem to be gaining momentum, often despite significant evidence against many of their key claims. But various investigations - including my own rudimentary analysis - have actually found that it's not fake news that's fueling such, but inherent bias, which is being propped up by the capacity to find others online who agree, and the validation that individuals can receive as a result.
I came across this when I went looking for evidence to support increased action against fake news online - my initial view was that, with the election looming, it would make sense that we should look to increase the pressure on Facebook, specifically, to remove more false news reports, in order to reduce its impact as an element in general debate.
What I found, however, was that it's rarely so black and white - for example, while there are some clearly false claims circulating through extremist political groups, like this one about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which was picked up and debunked by Facebook's fact-checkers.
Facebook fact checking
Most of the stories shared in such groups are not so clear-cut, and actually wouldn't be removed under any fake news policy.
Most of the content being distributed is more like this:
Facebook misleading story
This story is a re-iteration if a long-standing ‘debate’ around what's an acceptable way to celebrate the holidays, which isn't really a debate at all. Presidents since the 1950s have chosen, at different times, to use 'Happy Holidays' in their messaging, so as to not to alienate non-Christian recipients of holiday mail. This wasn't really considered a problem till more recently, with President Trump, in particular, making it a larger point of focus, which his supporters now utilize as a key tenet in their nationalist approach.
Elements like this are particularly effective for fueling support on Facebook because it's a passionate issue, one which inspires people to tap 'Like' and to comment in support of such a stance. That engagement triggers Facebook's algorithm to distribute the post further, in order to spur more of the same, and the story gains momentum, and becomes much bigger through that additional reach.
But it's not 'fake news', it's more an exaggeration of a specific element. And because it triggers such emotional response, it spreads, solidifying support within certain elements of the political spectrum.
While the media doesn't mirror the real world and doesn't try, social media is a much better mirror to gauge what people are really like. I tend to think that it's not the internet that changed people; it's people on the internet who change others' perceptions of what people really think.
The internet may draw out what was once kept hidden, but it doesn't put things in people that aren't already there.
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I remember running up to the 2015 UK election, UKIPpers on my Facebook feed posted a stupid speech attributed to Nigel Farage.
It referenced the usual nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-leftist, anti-foreign aid BS that is prominent in RWers in the US, UK and Aus. Most of it could easily have come from Farage.
But it also mentioned, if I remember right 'and I don't care that wrestling is fake, I enjoy it anyway.'
Not a topic I think Farage ever really cared for, certainly not something he'd slip into a political tirade
And yet numbnut UKIPpers reposted it like it was from the bloody Bible.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
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