In the groggy aftermath of the 2016 election, slightly more than half of Americans are still in shock. In an effort to understand not only how Trump happened but how they had so underestimated his appeal, editorialists have loudly pointed fingers at Facebook, which, according to a new Pew report, is now used daily by 68% of the American population. Facebook, they write, is uniquely responsible both for a seemingly unmitigated spread of fake news and for serving up news stories that fit users’ own beliefs, trapping us all in our own filter bubbles.
Of course, the increasing polarization in America—the shrinking overlaps between conservatives and liberals and between rural and urban America—is larger than the Facebook news feed. But the criticism of the social network highlights a broader problem: not the problem of not enough information, but rather an overabundance of it.
Online, we must parse a deluge of data, some of it completely fake, some of it somewhere between fact and falsity. On November 11, for instance, a website called The Conservative Daily Post tweeted a story headlined: “Maryland REFUSING Electoral College, Hillary Given Presidency As More States Follow CLICK HERE.” The story was a lie, based on details of a 2007 decision by Maryland’s electoral college voters to give their votes to the national popular vote winner. It happened nearly a decade ago, but there it was, being shared on social media as if it were Maryland’s response to the recent election of President Trump. In any case, Maryland’s electoral college votes already went to Clinton, a fact pointed out by numerous commenters. (An equal number of commenters seemed to take the news at face value.)
“There are lots of folks who are not prepared for this huge onslaught of information and figuring out how to deal with that,” says Craig Silverman, who reports on fake news for Buzzfeed and revealed teenagers in the Balkans were running fake news sites in support of Donald Trump to make money.
Even President Obama has weighed in on the issue, citing a concern for “democratic freedoms” during a press conference on Thursday with German chancellor Angela Merkel. “If we are not serious about the facts and what’s true and what’s not,” he said, “particularly in the social media era when so many get information from sound bites and snippets off their phone, if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
In the last fifteen years blogging has changed the way news is written, reported, and distributed. No longer do writers and pundits require a printing press or much financial wherewithal—they simply need a computer and an internet connection. While this diversification has brought about a smorgasbord of new points of view and methods of reporting, it has also opened the floodgates to a spectrum of unvetted information providers. As journalism has expanded online, pontificators and gossips have proliferated. And as eyeballs have moved online too, local news organizations—especially those in rural, small and medium-sized localities—have suffered precipitous drops in advertising, meaning layoffs, severely cut resources, and outright shutdowns.
At the same time, point-of-view journalism, wherein reporters intimate or disclose their subjective opinions or their stance on particular issues, began taking hold. The rejection of the view-from-nowhere style of reporting, an attempt to appear unbiased in factual presentations, may have helped to foster an environment in which readers mistrust reporters who have a personal view on a given topic. Meanwhile, online and elsewhere, news blends together with entertainment—a response perhaps to failing revenue and a constant need for pageviews. On a variety of websites geared toward younger, largely progressive audiences, content—a word that now slyly encompasses reported story, advertising plugs, opinion and just about anything that resides on the web—shares much of the same tone. Blogs have blossomed into full blown media companies and brought with them a sarcastic, edgy voice that can undermine their credibility. Fake or poorly reported news has adopted a tone of authority. The result is a jostling media landscape where the conspiracy theorists become indistinguishable from the credible sources.
“The whole flow of the information is a lot more conversational and a lot more decentralized,” says Rich Edmonds, media analyst at the Poynter Institute.
Even if internet-based reporting has left its mark on other forms of media, it’s not the only game in town: TV still rules. “When you take a step back, you have to recall that television is such a huge staple in the typical American media diet,” says Jesse Holcomb at Pew Research. While 65% of those polled earlier this year turned to the web for their news on the election, 78% of people watched television to get the latest on Trump and Clinton. Overall, 57% of people frequently flick on the tube to find out what’s going on in the world. That’s compared with the 38% of Americans who regularly get news from social media.
But social media’s role in the news cycle is undeniably outsized, and as a source of news, it’s growing quickly: according to the recent Pew report, daily Facebook use among U.S. adults rose from 70 to 76 percent in the past year. And, says Pew, the influence of those posts are growing too: 20 percent of survey respondents said social media has altered their position on a political issue and 17 percent say it has changed their view of a specific candidate, with Democrats more likely to report a change in views than Republicans.
Of course, the news a person ends up receiving depends greatly on where they go looking for it. Newspapers used to be the gatekeepers of information, separating out the nonsense from the stuff of import. But they no longer occupy the grand role they once did. Meanwhile, readers have turned to the places where they increasingly get the rest of their information, often for free: from the web and their phones. Online platforms, seeking ever more engagement and higher ad revenues, are more than happy to oblige. Earlier this year, Facebook launched Instant Articles in order to directly host publisher content and better serve it to users, and Google’s AMP service now offers publishers a similar feature in its search results.
“We’re seeing a whole ratcheting up of how much consumption of news has moved to Google, Facebook, etc,” says Edmonds. On the whole, 14% of people found social media to be the most helpful source for catching up on the election, according to Pew. Roughly the same percentage of people thought news websites were the most helpful resources for understanding the election cycle. There is also a lot of overlap when it comes to where people are sourcing their news: Pew reports that nearly half of all Americans have more than five sources they turn to for election coverage.
The rise of social media platforms as curators and distributors of news content has raised new questions about what civic responsibility they have and whether these gatekeepers should be filtering out factually inaccurate articles or reducing the “echo chamber” effect.
The answers don’t seem immediately apparent. In the Washington Post, fake news blogger Paul Horner admits to not only making up stories that spread virulently online, but to creating fake source material for other stories. Much of it, he said, was quickly picked up by supporters of the president-elect. “I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything—they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist,” he told the Post.
In a quick rebuttal to Trump’s clinching of the presidential seat, Max Read called out Facebook for promoting fake news and aiding Trump’s rise to power. Many others piled on. In response, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the notion that fake news on the platform in any way swayed the election a “crazy idea.” Zuckerberg further cemented his feelings in a post, claiming that less than 1% of content on Facebook is fake news or deceptive content. (Of course, notwithstanding Facebook’s recent efforts to be more transparent with advertisers, much of its other data cannot be verified by outside auditors.)
But as others have pointed out, the number of misleading stories on Facebook is less important than how far that content spreads, and how many people are affected by it. Facebook’s own research has demonstrated how effective it is at, for instance, encouraging people to vote or influencing users’ emotions. A Buzzfeed report this week details how the 20 top fake news stories on Facebook received more engagement than the top 20 mainstream news stories—part of a trend that seems to have begun after Facebook tweaked its algorithms to prioritize posts from friends. On Twitter, meanwhile, researchers at USC who examined a sampling of election tweets found that 1 in 5 were sent by a bot.
Furthermore, social networks make it easy to insulate ourselves from people and information that don’t align with what we believe in. And even when we choose not to block out conflicting opinions and people from our feeds, algorithms can do it for us, turning our social feeds into a monotone hum of if-you-like-this-you’ll-like-that news and commentary.
“What we have that is new,” says Silverman, “is massive global platforms connected to the internet where stuff can move with great velocity and get to a lot of people very quickly, and then on top of that, when you throw in the element of algorithms on Facebook mediating what people are seeing and feeding them more of what they’ve already been consuming, you can get this self-reinforcing bubble that people live in.”
The bubbles are not limited to the web. Committed liberals tend to prefer city-living and suburban environments, while staunch conservatives like living in more spacious rural areas and small towns, according to Pew. Of course, there are people who fall in between, but even they skew along these lines, with those more casual liberals largely choosing suburbs over smalls towns and vice versa. Those who don’t identify consistently with a party are fairly evenly distributed across these four landscapes. (While nearly 40% of Americans identify as unaffiliated independent voters, Pew reports that only 13% of citizens truly don’t lean toward a particular party.)
Whether because people are moving to destinations with similar attitudes, or because of growing access to a spectrum of content and the increased polarization of viewpoints in the news, people of different ideologies have less respect for one another than ever. “For the first time in surveys dating back more than two decades,” reported a July Pew report, majorities of Republicans (58%) and Democrats (55%) say they have a very unfavorable view of the opposing party. In 1994, fewer than half as many Republicans (21%) and Democrats (17%) expressed highly negative views of the other party.”
People with certain political leanings are learning to consult one set of sources and distrust others. While those who consistently identify as liberal tend to trust popular media, those who consider themselves conservative tend to trust very few news sources, according to a 2014 Pew analysis. The alignments are fairly unsurprising: conservatives trust Fox News, Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh. Liberals trust a spectrum of news sources including the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, BBC, CNN. News on social media sites is the least trusted source. “Only 4% of web-using adults have a lot of trust in the information they find on social media. And that rises to only 7% among those who get news on these sites,” reports Pew. In his campaign, Trump leveraged uncertainty about the mainstream news, constantly working in his “lying media” mantra into stump speeches.
“I don’t think hammering the media was the cornerstone of Trump’s whole campaign and appeal, but it fit right in,” says Edmonds. “[He] encouraged his backers to think … the media is part of the establishment that they want a break with.” As a result, even legitimate media critiques of Trump may have only helped to steel the beliefs of Trump supporters and feed the narrative that the media was out of touch.
For those who would ordinarily fall in the middle, there is more information than ever from which to draw an opinion. The Internet has expanded geographic clusters to people with similar ideas across the globe. It also grants more access to opposing news and views that can be scary. One of the most resounding refrains from Trump supporters (elegantly highlighted in a recent episode of This American Life) is that change (whether the move to clean energy or the immigration of refugees to the United States) is happening too fast. That may in part be a response not only to the change that’s happening in their communities, but also progressions they perceive from news and ideas captured in their various social feeds. In an era of when we can be so choosy about the news we get, occasional access to both far right and far left viewpoints may be scaring moderates, causing them to retreat into even more extreme silos.
As a long term strategy toward cleaning up a polluted lake of information, Silverman suggests that schools should be teaching students how to be more media savvy and give them tools to pick out misinformation from verified reportage. In the future, we’ll all need to be our own editors, sussing out the real from the fake. In the near term, he suggests that web platforms embrace human curation in addition to algorithms. The more obvious hoax news is fairly easy to identify and could be tagged as such on Facebook and Twitter. He also thinks Facebook’s algorithm could be tweaked to lessen the impact of fake news. For instance, if a story is being shared amongst a small pocket of ideologically similar users, perhaps the network could refrain from blasting it out to a wider audience.
For services like Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter, a certain amount of human curation is required to ensure that quality content—not just whatever has the most engagement—gets the widest circulation. (Ironically, earlier this year, Facebook fired its team of Trending Topics curators not long after right-wing pundits complained of liberal bias in the articles they were surfacing.)
“The fact that increasingly, Mark Zuckerberg has had to address this and senior executives have had to address this means that they’re feeling a sense of scrutiny and pressure,” says Silverman, “and I suspect they’re having a lot of conversations internally about what they’re going to do. So it’s going to be interesting.”
In the days since we spoke, Google and Facebook have publicly announced initial steps to quelch fake news sites. Both companies have issued a ban on fake news from using its ad-platform—a move that could help defund these kinds of sites. Teams of humans will now vet the publications that seek ad promotion on two very important gatekeepers.
But this is only the beginning of a much larger effort to keep less than quality information from reaching the most possible eyes. And there is a possibility that the news outlook won’t get any clearer. Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, executive chairman of fake news site Breitbart known for its bigoted and sometimes false news and opinion stories, to be his chief strategist. There’s worry that Bannon’s media background might help the Trump administration coordinate a well-run propaganda machine. It’s a concern that should make efforts to combat misinformation that much more urgent.