The 2016 Word of the Year tells a sad tale about public perception of “truth”.
Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary chooses a word that has entered public conversation, and declares it their Word of the Year. The fact that 2016’s Word of the Year is “post-truth” seems particularly fitting now fake news has made the headlines – both literally and metaphorically.
Post-truth is a term describing circumstances where reality becomes less important than something appealing to existing beliefs and prejudices. And that’s exactly how fake news works. Social media platforms are awash with exaggerated or fictionalized stories. These are presented as the truth by their biased creators and intended to tap into existing prejudices or opinions. In a process known as confirmation bias, we are more likely to approve of stories that match or reinforce our personal beliefs. We’re also more likely to share and repost them. This boosts the figures by which social media platforms are deemed to be worth advertising with or investing in.
Fiction? Not Quite.
Fake news may involve selective editing, an inaccurate portrayal of real events, or parody accounts presented as being genuine. Its scurrilous nature has led to a great deal of soul-searching in recent months. Barack Obama has been scathing about the role of fake news during the campaign to choose his replacement, criticizing the “very well packaged” streams of “active misinformation” in the weeks running up to the presidential election. Analysis by BuzzFeed has indicated Facebook carried more fake stories than real ones in the days prior to the polls closing, making it increasingly hard to separate fact from fiction.
Although fake news is often generated by people, the rise of automated social media bots has seen swathes of biased or misleading stories produced on a daily basis. Bot-generated tweets in support of Hillary Clinton were primarily based on criticizing Donald Trump, which would reinforce the prejudices of Democrat voters without actually reporting anything new – or especially honest. And amid incessant claims of political bias among the established media outlets, new platforms have emerged. The right-wing Breitbart News Network has seen phenomenal growth this year, attracting blue-chip advertisers and even launching its own clothing range for people who prefer to view the world through an affirmative prism.
While Breitbart is an example of a news platform evolving to meet market demand, much of its political coverage has been as biased as the fake stories from fictional platforms like the Denver Guardian. None of which would be a problem if people could distinguish fake news from genuine stories, but they can’t. And even if they could, it often suits their agenda to repost and retweet fake content anyway. Academic research has suggested that false stories are more likely to be shared than real ones, since they often contain hyperbolic headlines and sensational accusations that will provoke a stronger reaction than the more mundane reality.
So what can be done to clamp down on fake news? Having initially dismissed it as less than 1% of Facebook’s content, Mark Zuckerberg is now considering everything from a ‘flag’ option for fake stories through to introducing automated detection-and-deletion algorithms. Google has banned fake news websites from receiving advertising revenue, and Twitter has been closing far-right accounts on grounds of hate speech.
However, social media platforms live and die by traffic volumes, which are constantly boosted by the mass sharing of content. It is also impossible to stop individual users posting biased commentary, which suggests we all need to approach social media content with greater caution in future. It seems fake news is here to stay, regardless of whether we embrace it or shun it.
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