Unintended Consequences: Fake News on Social Media and What Happens Next

All the talk in the blogosphere this week has been about the influence that ‘fake news’ may have had in the US election. Here we take a wider view of this phenomenon, to see where the trend is heading. Businesses which find fake news distasteful may still rightly ask whether they must nevertheless engage in the practice of generating and promoting it, on the grounds that their competitors could do the same and leave them at a disadvantage.

The answer, thankfully, is a resounding NO. Although “post-truth” is now the word of the year according to Oxford English Dictionary, and its apparent successes in the political realm may lead to further expansion of this parasitical industry, its strength and influence are by necessity confined to the very realm it now occupies: that of political disruption.

In a moment, we will look carefully at why that is. But first, let’s understand the phenomenon we’re encountering, where it came from, and what differentiates it from, say, the tabloid articles we’ve all grown accustomed to, about alien abductions, octopus attacks and newborn babies that speak four languages. We’ll also need to show why it’s different from both “propaganda” and “spam” as we normally use those terms.

The Scope of the Problem

New industries crop up when there is a gap in the existing market. Particularly in the West right now, there is a credibility gap in the regular media system. People are frustrated at the lack of opportunity in their lives, or angry at the way their country is going, and traditional news sources are not giving them a satisfying explanation for what is going wrong. Many believe that the ‘system’ is indeed rigged against them, with traditional media an active part of that system. Nor are the established media companies giving them a voice, or an outlet for their passion – but social media certainly is.

Social media allows people to live in intellectual closed spaces, ‘bubbles’ where they follow only those people they already agree with. These bubbles act as ideological incubators, where opinions evolve and harden because they do not face challenge by unwelcome facts from outside. Uncompromising opinions and ideologies, however need a constant stream of facts and stories to justify them. Absent something to rage about, rage disappears.

Enter fake news to the rescue.

Society had thought it had pretty much solved this problem before, but the current strain is an adaptation – something analogous to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Previous iterations of the phenomenon, such as tabloid journalism, fooled only the extra-gullible. As with email spam, the motivation to publish and distribute misleading content was transparent: the more people believed it, the more money would return directly to the publishers.

Ordinary propaganda works more subtly, but is still typically generated by cultural elites and disseminated through established channels: The Soviets are on our doorstep, Saddam / Iran is weeks away from a nuclear weapon, marijuana will make you lose your mind. For these slanted messages, regular people nevertheless remain the passive consumers, with the authorities doing the talking.

Fake news operates in a more insidious way. As Mike Caulfield argues, saying is believing: As soon as you click ‘share’ on a piece of fake news on social media, “the reposting shifts your orientation to the facts. You move from being a person reading information to someone arguing a side of an issue, and once you are on a side of the issue, no amount of facts or argument is going to budge you.” The nature of social media, moreover, ensures that people are more likely to post incendiary articles rather than boring ones, because the goal is to get a reaction.

Caulfield continues: “The headlines that float by you on Facebook for one to two hours a day, dozens at a time, create a sense of familiarity with ideas that are not only wrong, but hateful and dangerous. This is further compounded by the fact that … the source of the article [is] the friendly smiling face of someone you trust.”

Furthermore, the motives for generating fake news are less transparent now, leading many to jettison their skepticism. Clicks alone generate profit for the trolls and miscreants, and they write articles that are likely to be shared by other users. Much has been made in recent years of “the sharing economy”, but few realized how literally this term could be taken.

If Facebook and Twitter were small companies, then at least the problem would be limited in its effect. But Facebook is one of the world’s largest media companies, and arguably the most influential. The danger has become so severe that many media companies and personalities are declaring an emergency, with the New York Times blaming Mark Zuckerberg personally for letting “liars and con artists hijack his platform.”

There is some justice to this claim, as Facebook’s own algorithmically-determined trend markers show that fake news has repeatedly overshadowed real news on the site. For his part, Zuckerberg has shrugged off that criticism, pushing the line that: “We believe in giving people a voice, which means erring on the side of letting people share what they want whenever possible. We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or to mistakenly restrict accurate content.” And so it grows.

As bad as this situation is for the political realm, the problem of fake news won’t be able to jump over the wall around politics to infect business or other areas of life. Thankfully, intellectual defenses exist within the public space and within each of us for protection in our daily lives.

Build the Wall

As I mentioned above, new industries thrive and flourish when they find a gap in the market. Political back-rooms are a constant source of mystery and speculation, in exactly the way that the worlds of business and marketing aren’t. No bubbles exist whose members want to believe that Nokia still dominates the cellphone industry, or that General Electric is run by Russian operatives. In addition, fake news articles attacking competitors would soon be traced back to their source, creating an instant scandal for the offending company.

Politics is a jungle of disputed facts and events that most people don’t have time to untangle, even if their own motives were pure and if they had access to sources they knew were likewise impartial. The commercial world of hotels, soft drinks and laundry detergents simply don’t have those qualities, and even if they did, they aren’t part of “the system” and so the mass media would be able to focus on claims in these fields credibly and to the satisfaction of the general public.

Cracks in one area of society don’t indicate that the entire edifice is broken. Some parts are working better than ever, including efforts at transparency and citizen journalism. Even in a world where misleading stories are on the ascendancy, a corporate campaign of fake news would still stand out for readers – and its origins would be sniffed out in an instant, more than negating any short-term gains the effort had brought.

Social media itself will surely crack down on this phenomenon anyway, and probably sooner rather than later. The pressure on Facebook to reform has lately been a strain on the company, and is likely to result in the platform instituting some controls on its output in order to prevent its brand from being too tarnished from repeated scandals of this type.

Many expect Facebook to bring on a third-party editor or ombudsman to regulate its content, as well as letting users flag content that they feel is a malicious attempt to deceive. For its part, Twitter has also begun to regulate itself by purging users it deems to be damaging to the Twitter experience. Adaptation can be found in the toolbelt of all parties, not just the parasites.

While these two adversaries are busy fighting each other, the best position for the rest of us is not to join in. High-quality, customized content will always perform well online, and will brand your company as a likeable, classy alternative to the negativity around it. The right story, written and designed well, and served up in an attractive way to your target audience – these are ideas that will always win out in the end.

Unless you’re in the political realm right now, in which case … good luck to you.

David Norcross is Digital Communications Director for Lexicon Business Communications

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