Just the facts: Social media and the rise of fake news

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Did you see or share on social media the map of a mostly blue America claiming to show the electoral college results if only Millennials voted? The one that had Hillary Clinton winning by some 400 votes – and was proven to be completely untrue?

What about the call to boycott Pepsi over (false) claims that the company’s CEO asked Trump supporters to “take their business elsewhere?” Did that one trick you?

In the fallout of America’s surprising presidential election results, social media has emerged as a central talking point. Fake news and information has long been a problem on the Internet. (Remember the kidney thieves in New Orleans or how Bill Gates wanted to give you money? I waited weeks for that check!)

But the sharing on social media platforms today takes this to a new level. An interesting study by Buzzfeed found that, in the final three months of the presidential campaign, fake election news stories generated more engagement than real stories from major news outlets.

It can be hard to tell the difference between an authenticated news story and something completely made up. And, psychology tell us that we’re more apt to believe things we want to believe. Thus, less-engaged readers can fall into an echo chamber of mistruths via their social interactions. (For more on that echo chamber, you have to check out this interactive piece by the Wall Street Journal. Amazing stuff.) And, with the influx of news sweeping through our feeds, who has time to read beyond the headlines anyway?

Until last week, nobody seemed that worried about it, at least not among mainstream audiences in the U.S. But the rise of Trump and the results of the presidential election have absolutely changed that.

In the last week, CNN, USA TODAY, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR and many other news outlets – even President Obama – have been talking about the issue and posing the basic question: What responsibility do Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies have when it comes to propagating misinformation?

To answer that question, I think back a few years to when Facebook and the like came on the scene. Part of their appeal was in the way they opened the floodgates of media. No longer did a person have to be a bonafide member of the press to report and publish news. Citizen journalism became a buzz term, and stories shared by everyday people were seen as more trustworthy. The media reluctantly embraced these news forms of sharing and finding information.

But that success came at a cost: Advertising sales plummeted at traditional news outlets and, in turn, these organizations were gutted of talent and resources. Facebook and Google got rich absorbing the ad dollars. Facebook’s first quarter ad revenue for 2016 was a whopping $5.2 billion. To compare, the parent company of USA TODAY saw advertising sales decline 11.6% year-over-year to $351.2 million.

And as these companies grew in influence and reach, their role as a news distributor grew as well. We now know 62% of Americans get their news from Facebook.

So what is Facebook’s role in this new world? What responsibility does Google have to return real news, Twitter to promote civil conversation? These companies don’t want to be in the news media business – who does these days? – but, by default, they are. And, in my opinion, that comes with some responsibility.

To their credit, the bigwigs at Google, Facebook and Twitter are taking this all very seriously. Google has announced it will ban fake news sites from using its ad service. That’s a big step forward. Twitter has suspended accounts known to produce alt-right hate speech. And Facebook has updated its policies to follow Google’s lead of blocking ads from known fake news sites. We’ll see what happens from here.

As a marketing strategist and former journalist, now in the technology world, I find this to be a really interesting conversation – and an important glimpse of the limits of our digital reality. Truth and accuracy matter in the real world – and we have to find ways to keep our digital world from corrupting that.


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  1. This trend raises interesting questions. I’ve been wondering about how attitudes toward what we read might affect companies’ marketing efforts or social media, if no one trusts anyone’s point of view unless it reinforces their existing beliefs.


    • It’s a great point, Jeff. Especially as the lines between marketing and news blur — with the rise of content marketing, native advertising. Perhaps the answer is in the knowledge that nearly everything we read today has a purpose/point of view. And, as readers, we have to dig a little deeper than the headline to figure out what that is, and then interpret what we read based on it. But that’s asking a lot and doesn’t answer the question of how to speak to someone who doesn’t share a particular point of view. That one still has me thinking…


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