The Fake News Debate on Social - Who’s Responsible?

Fake news became a heated topic of discussion across social media during the 2016 US Presidential elections, and for good reason. We wanted to investigate why fake news became so important recently, what it looks like, and what platforms are doing to address the problem.

Misinformation and ‘fake news’ has always been prevalent in society, but the degree to which it gained momentum during the US Presidential election on social media was alarming. We saw false stories that ranged from the outlandish and utterly preposterous to the benign and the credible. In some cases, it was deliberately designed to be indistinguishable from real news. The reason? 

Think of it this way, fake news is driven and shared for four specific reasons: Profit, Politics, Propaganda, and Passion. We wanted to compare the top-performing fake and real news shared on Facebook to see if there were any common threads in content types.

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We found that 87% of fake news content consisted of links, 10% were photos and 3% were videos. We can infer that links were the dominant post type because their content creators wanted to drive users to their website for profit; it would be no surprise if they were clickbait headlines. What’s most interesting is the fact that the top-performing fake news propagator (in terms of generating the most interactions), American News, promoted 35% of their posts to reach more audiences. Compare this with BBC the top-performing real news page, which promoted only 2% of their posts.

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Real news sources tend not to promote their content because they generate an immense amount of interactions organically. In contrast, fake news sources tend to promote heavily to garner higher reach and engagement, and post links to drive website traffic where they can serve people ads for profit. Always be sure to verify if a news-like post is Sponsored, because there’s a higher probability that it's fake.

We analyzed top 10 posts from October to December and found another distressing finding. Fake news posts from Disclose.tv on average, were shared more than posts from than real news sources like CNN, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, etc.

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The top 15 posts from these fake media pages received 4x less interactions than reputable media top 15 posts. According to Socialbakers data, these fake news posts didn’t receive more interactions as Buzzfeed’s analysis suggested. Still, ¼ of interactions is still quite a large number of interactions considering the fact that we are discussing false media.

For those that turn to social media for news, this poses a huge challenge to stay well-informed, and with credible information. Yet, with social media, users frequently consume more news and information is spread faster than ever before; not to mention it’s often shared from the people you trust most - your family and friends.

A study from Pew Research Center was conducted in 2016, and found that the 62% of adults get their news on social media, and 18% are doing so very often. The report explored nine different platforms and discovered that 66% of Facebook users obtain their news on the platform, and roughly 59% of users on Twitter. However, it’s important to consider the sites’ total reach, so taking the size of the user groups into consideration, Facebook reaches 67% of US adults whereas Twitter reaches just 16%. To put this into perspective, two-thirds of Facebook users that receive their news on the platform amount to 44% of the US population.

A Gallup poll said that “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year”. Gallup started to ask this question in 1972, and conducted a study on a yearly basis since 1997.

Leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election, Americans closely followed events that unfolded across a variety of media outlets. In a well-functioning democracy, it’s incredibly important that citizens have access to credible information to make a well-informed voting decision. Influential leaders from the Pope to then-President Obama strongly denounced the spread of disinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms, and its threat to democracy.

The problem wasn’t just that fake news was apparent in public discourse. It was the fact that this verifiably false content garnered millions of shares, and some were deliberately created to be indistinguishable from real news. The purpose of fake news may be motivated to generate profit, but the contentious issue is that it could sway public opinion. When fake news is disseminated, consumed and shared in large numbers, coupled with Americans’ growing distrust in mass media, it has the power to influence.

What are Platforms Doing to Mitigate Fake News?

The world’s largest digital information platforms, Facebook and Google, have been testing online tools in the US and UK to help their users identify credible information on their portals. Google has integrated a “fact-check” tag for some news pages to help users immediately see fact-checked content.

Facebook is currently testing and launching tools to help mitigate fake news. “It is still early days, but we’re looking forward to learning and continuing to roll this out more broadly soon,” said Facebook spokesman Alex Kucharski.

According to Chief Product Evangelist of Socialbakers, Moses Velasco, “Facebook is the single largest news platform in many markets. This step shows they're aware of their importance, but they're sticking to their values of empowering the users, who will be able to flag content and then decide how they feel about a story that's "disputed." The fact is there's no one tool that will deal with fake news: it requires both the platform to sort information and the user to read critically. This is a positive step for both. With social media, we're better informed than ever, but it is our duty to ensure the information we receive is correct before sharing it with our networks”.

What are Users Doing to Take Action Against Fake News?

The users of social media are what make it social. We engage with the content we are exposed to, so we have an inherent responsibility to differentiate fake news from real news. Additionally, this means thinking twice and doing some research before hitting that "Share" button. Our actions have consequences. If readers keep this in mind, it can help them think critically about the news they consume as well as what they share with their private networks.

Velasco is hopeful for the future and discusses his final thoughts on the topic, “I would like to see more education from platforms on helping people understand how to distinguish fake news from real, and what to do about it. When a situation arises where tech companies like Facebook and Twitter start to control what people say on the platforms, users will accuse them of censorship. Social Media should remain a marketplace of ideas and sharing. The old adage of 'Don’t always believe what you see on TV’ still holds true today - be critical, be aware. Educate yourself on the sources of fake news, but even with respectable media institutions, those who control the news will use their point of view. There is a distinction between opinion and facts, the lines are blurred, and truth is often subjective so look out for it.”

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