“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion,” the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “but not to his own facts.”
How simple and eloquent those words must have sounded years ago when Moynihan said them—and how almost quaint they appear today. Because after reading even a fraction of the sensational, made-up stories that frequented social media this past election year (or watching similarly fraudulent videos), you might conclude that, in fact, you can have your own opinion, and your own facts, too.
For starters, just get on the internet and begin searching for what journalists call “fake news.” It isn’t hard to find. You can read “news” stories about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, of Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS, or of Ireland accepting American “refugees” distraught over the real estate magnate’s victory. No wonder the august Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” the Word of the Year, besting such formidable contenders as alt-right, glass cliff, and Brexiteer.
The Challenge of Social Media
What’s changed since the days when Moynihan, who retired in 2001, was considered one of the most thoughtful and erudite members of the Senate?
“The difference was—there wasn’t Facebook,” says Ryan Teague Beckwith, a Senior Editor in Time magazine’s Washington Bureau and an instructor in the Journalism master’s program at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.
Facebook was launched in 2004, but it is only in the past few years that it and other social media sites have emerged as key players in the dissemination of news, both real and imaginary.
More than 40 percent of American adults get news on the social media site, the Knight Foundation and the Pew Research Center reported last May. And by the third quarter of 2016, Facebook had nearly 1.2 billion active daily users, a 17 percent increase over late 2015.
“Between 2013 and 2016, the social media tools got much more sophisticated, and there was a lot more emphasis on sharing,” says Angie Holan, another Georgetown Journalism instructor and Editor of PolitiFact, which won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the 2008 election.
The problem peaked during the recent presidential election. According to BuzzFeed, the 20 top-performing fake election news stories received more shares, comments, and reactions in the final three months of the campaign than the 20 top election stories from 19 major news sites: 8.7 million for the fake stories versus 7.3 million for the real ones. Seventeen of the top 20 fictitious stories were either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.
Hyperpartisans and Entrepreneurs
The fake stories can be spread by hyperpartisans or just ordinary people looking for an easy way to get rich.
“I think a lot of this is just driven by people who are looking for cheap web traffic,” Beckwith said. “It doesn’t cost anything to set up a website and post Google ads on it.”
And it doesn’t matter where you live. Last month, the Associated Press talked to a Macedonian teenager who was able to tweak and repurpose inaccurate stories from right-wing websites, garner more than 685,000 weekly views, and make about $383 a week—a considerable sum in his country.
An Expanding Definition
To a journalist, the definition of fake news is straightforward: It refers to “news,” not including satire, that is intentionally fabricated. It does not include news that is simply biased or poorly reported. Nonetheless, politicians and public officials have muddied the term by using it to refer to news stories they claim are inaccurate.
For example, in December, Trump tweeted: “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue—FAKE NEWS!”
Expanding the definition of fake news to include anything that might include bias or a mistake inevitably harms the reputation of legitimate news organizations, many of which are having a hard enough time being heard in an increasingly fractured news environment. In January, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan argued that the term “fake news” had become so misused that it should be “put … out of its misery.”
Of course, retiring the term won’t make the problem go away. What is needed, said Holan, is to “go back to the old-fashioned practices” of both disciplines. At PolitiFact and in her classes at Georgetown, “we talk about sources and attribution and the provenance of a story,” Holan said. “We need to teach students how to question, to dig deeper, and not to take things at face value.”
Facebook Takes a Step
Facebook has also responded. After much criticism of fraudulent stories being shared on its site (the Pope’s “endorsement” of Trump was forwarded nearly a million times), the social media giant announced an agreement with several news groups, including PolitiFact and ABC News, that will fact-check articles flagged as suspect and have the option of giving them a “disputed” designation on the site.
Beckwith said that the agreement is a good first step, but that Facebook needs to do more. When prioritizing stories that appear on their sites, Facebook and other social media outlets have long valued algorithms over editors, he said. While algorithms are cheaper to provide than journalists, and great at determining what’s trending and why, they’re challenged when it comes to assessing veracity. Perhaps a good model moving forward would be some kind of hybrid system that takes advantage of both humans and machines, Beckwith said.
Internet users will also need to become more sophisticated about what they read online—and, as they become more familiar with fake news and how to spot it, they will, Holan and Beckwith predicted.
“We may look back and say we were at the peak of it now,” Beckwith said.
Maybe. But fake news has been around for as long as people have been deceiving one another. Social media just made it easier.
“I think people are taking steps to detect fake news,” Holan said. “It’s not a problem we can solve as much as try to manage.”