Social Media and the Spread of Misinformation

Oh no! According to a post on your Facebook news feed, your favorite actor from your favorite TV show is dead! How sad! I need to read about this story immediately!

Click on the link, and it brings you to a “Gotcha!”-type page announcing that he is, in fact, not dead, and poking fun at your curiosity for clicking on the link.

This type of baiting is extremely prevalent within social media. Celebrity death hoaxes appear to be the most common type of misinformation spread via social media (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/norman-reedus-death-hoax-walking-dead-star-killed-car-crash-false-1450705), though other false stories have made their way to social media too. For example, a recent story announced that former New England Patriots wide receiver Aaron Hernandez, currently on trial for murder, was found not guilty of the charges against him, and he would return to playing for the Patriots next season (http://deadspin.com/no-aaron-hernandez-wasnt-found-not-guilty-1673849673). This story, like so many others publicized by social media, turned out to be patently false.

Ironically, this picture of Hernandez sums up this topic quite nicely:

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The very nature of social media allows the spread of information – and consequently, misinformation as well – extremely quickly. What exacerbates the issue is that, often, the most alarming stories are the ones that spread the fastest, as they are the first to capture the reader’s attention. And they’re not just negative in tone, either; did you hear that Sony is giving away hundreds of PS4 game consoles, and all you need to do to enter is to comment, share and/or like the post? (http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/nothing/playstation.asp)

The impact of this misinformation being spread cannot be understated. Families of allegedly-dead celebrities fear the worst, having to call their (likely very busy) celebrity relative in order to debunk the rumors. Duped consumers get their (and their kids’) hopes up for a PlayStation 4 showing up on their doorsteps in time for the holidays, only to find out they were victims of a cruel ruse. Playing with people’s emotions is a powerful tool, and the peer pressure that is so pervasive in social media appears to be the perfect medium to spread this. Exploiting the trust one places in his/her social media circles is the key to preserving the illusion of truth to what would otherwise be a little-known, and unproven, rumor. After all, who would you believe first, your best friend, or The Boston Globe?

One big problem with misinformation is that it rapidly takes on a life of its own. Before the onslaught of social media, stories that spread through the internet were easily debunked by traditional news outlets, who had the time and capability to fact-check their stories. Now, due to the fast-paced nature of social media, traditional news outlets are forced to compete with social media for attention, and fact-checking can take a backseat to providing a steady stream of news stories for the public to digest. As a result, the line between truth and fiction becomes precariously blurred.

Further, with the unregulated nature of the internet and social media, the rules of traditional news reporting no longer apply. Fact and truth are now secondary to attention and advertising. It is far easier and quicker to post a 140-character tweet that “reports” on an event (to whatever degree of veracity the “publisher” sees fit), rather than composing a full-length news article, editing it, submitting it to a news outlet, having them edit and fact-check it, and then publishing it. Given that social media do not, and, due to sheer volume, likely cannot, have fact-checking capabilities, the potential for untruths and misinformation to spread via social media, at a pace far quicker than traditional (and more trusted) news media, is virtually limitless.

What can be done to combat this issue? We all have a role in maintaining the veracity of “reporting” in social media. For starters, we all should apply a bit of common sense to what we see online. Think for a second. For example, is it plausible that Sony would just give away PS4’s for no reason? It seems unlikely – the reason given for the giveaway (the items were removed from their sealed packaging and are unsaleable) is flimsy, at best. Surely Sony could repackage them and resell them?

playstation

As for the Hernandez case, regular news outlets would be all over this story, yet remained silent while this was spreading around Facebook. If it was true, don’t you think that news stations (who routinely follow high-profile legal cases such as this one) would be motivated, and have the resources, to be the first to share this news?

Because we know and trust our friends on a level that is not afforded to outside news sources, we are much quicker to believe our friends, to the point that we excuse the formality of thinking about what we are reading when our friends are the source of information. It’s a natural reaction, but it lends itself to spreading rumors and lies as though they were the truth. Only when we can go back to taking the time to think about, and look deeper into, what we are told, will we be able to avoid the plague of misinformation being spread throughout social media.

 

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