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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

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Fake news: news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and could mislead readers (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017).[1]

Our relationship with lying as human beings has always been complex. A lie is highly compressible and subject to the caprice of crowds. As humans evolved, the ways they lie and the means used to propagate their lies evolved as well. The current information age facilitates the profitability of lies more than any other, and the business of forging news has become accessible to the masses.

The originators of fake news are often motivated by an ideological force. A fervent attachment to a political leaning or a system of thought can offer enough drive to push people into weaving false stories. If enough people believe that Donald Trump was endorsed by the pope, it would lend him credence among evangelical voters. If enough people believe that an FBI agent suspected in Hillary’s leaked emails case shot himself after murdering his wife, it would project sinister implications for Hillary’s culpability and severity of the case. The malignant nature of fake news in the 2010s manifests in these examples; the websites responsible for these articles were either created for the sole purpose of propagating a single fabricated story or to consistently disseminate misinformation, sometimes both, and were profoundly successful in achieving their goals. Politics, being a game of narratives, is perfectly suited for exploitation by ideologues using social media.

The marriage of ideology and monetary profit plays out on the internet. Profiting from the propagation of sensationalized news used to be exclusive to tabloids, but the advent of social media laid waste to the ways of the past. What used to be a competition for virality became a daily struggle for relevance. The battlefield is made of algorithms governing trending topics and highlighted news. Transactions in the new age are made through website visits and clicks against the backdrop of advertisements. This explains the evolutionary trajectory of internet trolls. A decade ago, internet trolling was devoid of profit intent as the means to monetize that flavour of activity weren’t sophisticated enough.

The 2010s has been dominated by commentary. People have started to vlog, podcast, and create online content for the intent of mass consumption as a full-time occupation. Job positions pertaining to social media have become an integral part of any respectable company. The sanctum of big production companies and heavy investment has become the playground of anyone with internet access. It is not easy to distinguish between ideologues, morally compromised profit-seekers, and trolls because their content is very similar, an observation exemplifying the medium’s nature. At some point it becomes absurd to keep asking the why question. People will keep making money as long as their sensational material is consumed, and ideological warfare will never subside as long as a monetary incentive sustains it.

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Traditional media has a face. Reporters and anchors relay news and host opinionated panel shows. It is susceptible to bias or influence from a parent company and often has political leanings. Some stories are intentionally sensationalized, and others are willingly ignored. These are recognizable practices that can be criticized. CNN or Fox News can be embroiled in activities with real life repercussions resulting in termination or paying settlements. Social media nullifies the accountability associated with established corporations and entities while magnifying the volume and accelerating the diffusion of news stories. The progenitors of the biggest fake news stories in the past few years faced no legal or social backlash. Some websites went down after they lost relevance, but others took their place. The cycle is easily perpetuated: establish a website, publish sensational material, exploit social media platforms to propagate your message, run ads and monetize the site to capitalize on the flood of traffic, and repeat. Again, the monetary incentive is intertwined with ideological messaging. This also applies to trolls who hide behind the guise of satire when exposed. The cover of anonymity supplied by the internet perpetuates the cycle because it detaches users from their digital presence.

Traditional news media tends to adhere to a standard of fact-checking virtually non-existent on social media because of reasons already mentioned. The irony of the current age is that the advent of social media allowed more people than ever to engage in fact-checking but also provided the biggest breeding ground to cultivate misinformation. This can be traced back to the public’s almost absolute dependency on traditional media for news delivery and fact-checking.

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News on social media is user-generated, subject to the whims and biases of individuals. Trending hashtags and events garner most of the interaction. The medium is sustained by the ephemeral nature of the news cycle. This has been established by traditional media and perfected by social media in the last decade. The 24-hour news cycle and the “story of the day” are now neatly categorized on an automatically refreshed list tailored to your location and the people you follow and interact with. The algorithms are indifferent to the quality of news stories; the medium is solely built on facilitating interactions. Likes, retweets, and shares propel stories to the top. Trends compete for a place inside our brains. The consumption of bite-sized news stories from limited character platforms and click-bait driven by sensationalism has compromised our ability to discern falsity. The algorithms feeding this chaotic digital organism are easily abusable. Nesting a fake news story then using bots and paid accounts to disseminate its content is no mighty task. A portion of public users will inevitably latch to the content and accelerate its diffusion. This can elevate a fake news story to a place on a trending list where it can fester or unravel arbitrarily. The amoral promise of a vastly connected, highly customized digital kingdom unceasingly delivers. Posts you might like, friends you might want to follow, buttons to click, ads to consume; all are pathogen carriers.

Our brains acclimate. We are exceptional at adaptation. We recognize the varying formats of YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc., and start to fittingly develop efficient consumption trends. Information on these websites is impossible to analyse in its totality so we allow the titles, thumbnails, and categorized trending topics to guide us. This trade-off eliminates the possibility of interacting with less talked-about stories.

A study analyzing 126,000 stories on twitter from 2006 to 2017 shared by ~3 million people more than 4.5 million times found the following:

Although we cannot claim that novelty causes retweets or that novelty is the only reason why false news is retweeted more often, we do find that false news is more novel and that novel information is more likely to be retweeted.” (Vosoughi, Roy, & Aral, 2018)[2]

In matters pertaining to the diffusion of fake news and the impact of bots, the study reached the following conclusion:

Although the inclusion of bots accelerated the spread of both true and false news, it affected their spread roughly equally. This suggests that contrary to what many believe, false news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

 

Social media has been accused of nurturing echo chambers. A study of 10.1 million U.S Facebook users was analysed by Allcott and Gentzkow:

Bakshy, Messing, and Adamic (2015)[3] show that Facebook friend networks are ideologically segregated—among friendships between people who report ideological affiliations in their profiles, the median share of friends with the opposite ideology is only 20 percent for liberals and 18 percent for conservatives—and people are considerably more likely to read and share news articles that are aligned with their ideological positions. This suggests that people who get news from Facebook (or other social media) are less likely to receive evidence about the true state of the world that would counter an ideologically aligned but false story.” (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017)

Yet the same study emphasized that the accusation is not fully justified:

Within the population under study here, individual choices (2, 13, 15, 17) more than algorithms (3, 9) limit exposure to attitude-challenging content in the context of Facebook. Despite the differences in what individuals consume across ideological lines, our work suggests that individuals are exposed to more cross-cutting discourse in social media than they would be under the digital reality envisioned by some (2, 6).”

 

We can, however, agree on some facts. Social media and online streaming are gradually taking over.

As of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media – with two-in-ten doing so often, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center.”[4]

Even if a user shares a piece of fake news out of outrage, they have still acted within a system that uses advertising revenue to financially compensate its creator, the social media network, and the company that supported its advertising. It is important that web users understand that the web is structured around financial incentives and that, collectively, the actions of following links and sharing pages are intrinsically economic and carry significant consequences for the future of the global information ecology.” (Graham, 2017)[5]

 

Understand the medium, and be wary of sustained echoes.

 


 

[1] Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-36.

[2] Vosoughi, S., Roy, D., & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146-1151.

[3] Bakshy, E., Messing, S., & Adamic, L. A. (2015). Exposure to ideologically diverse news and opinion on Facebook. Science, 348(6239), 1130-1132.

[4] Shearer, E., & Gottfried, J. (2017, September 07). News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2017. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2017/09/07/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2017/#

[5] Graham, R. (2017). Google and advertising: digital capitalism in the context of Post-Fordism, the reification of language, and the rise of fake news. Palgrave Communications, 3(1), 45.

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