Facebook and Fake News

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The news is bad enough these days without the extra burden of having to deal with fake news. But that is just what Facebook users have been dealing with. In fact, following Donald Trump’s surprise win, some argued that the election was affected by fake news circulating on Facebook. Mark Zuckerman initially denied that fake news could have had that impact, calling the idea "crazy," but since then, he has announced a number of new initiatives to crack down on fake news.

Why would people fall for fake news on Facebook? Some of the stories are outlandish:  “Terrorists are funding 20% of Hillary’s campaign;” “Obama told illegal immigrants to vote;” “Trump Confirms that He Just Googled Obamacare.”  That last example is the title of a satire. Its author, Andy Borowitz, has written more than one satire taken as fact by some readers.  An insightful article by Judith Donath explains why people want to believe what they read. She argues, “Posting fake news stories is a modern form of identity politics.” By that she means that people post and share the news stories that identify them with a certain community with shared values.  Often the fake stories that get circulated the most are the most partisan ones, because they conform to the political beliefs of those who pass them on. Fake news stories actually often gets shared more than factual ones. Donath writes, “Posting any story, real or false, that conforms to your community’s viewpoint bolsters your ties with them. Even if it is false, you have still demonstrated your shared values.”  She goes on, “If  . . . the news you post is fake, outsiders are more likely to be outraged. If you stand by it tenaciously, they may call you a fool or a liar. This infuriated response makes posting fake news a convincing signal for your allegiance to your in-group.” Hostility from outsiders strengthens the cohesion of the in-group. On the other hand, the threat of hostility from outsiders has caused some Facebook groups to go underground by becoming secret groups. There they can share news, fake or otherwise, secure in the knowledge that they are sharing with kindred spirits. This can be reassuring for those who voted against Trump, particularly since he has already been dubbed “Tweeter-in-Chief” and does not shrink from using his tweets to criticize his opponents for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Textbooks have had to try to keep up with students’ use of technology for research. Long gone are the days when students relied solely on print sources. We have had to teach them how to document online sources, but also how to evaluate them. We still have to fight their tendency to believe that one source is as good as another and their inclination to go to the source listed first when they Google key terms. Now it seems we are going to have to teach them to look critically even at what they read on Facebook. One of my friends recently posted on her timeline, “I miss the old Facebook. Just saying.” She misses the days before Facebook got so politicized. Maybe between elections it may go back to being a place where people discuss their personal problems, document their travels, and even post pictures of the meal they are eating—to say nothing of all of the cute cat videos. Even Hillary admitted that she found the cat videos a welcome break from campaigning. Maybe we will never go back to that naïve a time. At least we can never go back to trusting completely everything we read on Facebook, and that is probably a good thing. 

Credit: Facebook by Pascal Paukner on Flickr

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.