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Misinformation online – is there anything we can do?

Image credit: Inner Confidence [innerconfidence.com]
Image credit: Inner Confidence [innerconfidence.com]
Image credit: Inner Confidence [innerconfidence.com]
The online world is awash with inaccurate or false reporting, fake news and ambiguous stories that confuse, anger or bewilder millions of online users. For instance, a widely-shared quote from the President-Elect, Donald Trump, in which he called Republican voters “the dumbest group of voters in the country” in 1998, turned out to be false. Despite this, it’s still being shared on Facebook and Twitter today. Many Americans, in the face of debunking after debunking, still think that their outgoing President is a Kenyan, a Muslim or both.

Infowars.com is known for its gathering of conspiracies and uninformative scare stories. Take an article from June that came up from a quick Google search. The author states a number of news reports about vaccinations, food companies and the sightings of military vehicles that could withstand gas attacks. The author then admits:

Everything that I just detailed could just be part of normal government activity that is simply receiving some unusual attention right now.

Or of course it could also be possible that the government is getting prepared for something really big, but even if they were, they would not tell us in advance anyway.

Everything could be normal… or the government could be preparing for a major disaster on a world scale without telling the public! But Michael Snyder is gathering a number of unrelated stories and tying them together to make a sinister conclusion he doesn’t quite state but leaves for the reader to not only humour but exaggerate in their imagination. It’s stories like these that contribute to the spread of false news, mistrust and paranoia that are so common these days.

Leading figures in the online world and on social media are certainly aware of the problem. Websites such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and the BBC’s Reality Check exist purely to scrutinise public claims and political rhetoric and to correct misleading statements. In October, Google added a ‘fact-checking’ function to news stories that appear in Google searches. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced on Saturday that his company would work harder to reduce the spread of fake news on its site.

Part of the problem comes with the immense popularity of these articles bringing them onto our screens. Even if an article is nonsense, it can still be shared by thousands of people, granting it a huge audience of people who can share it themselves – the cycle goes on and on. Matt Masur made this point clear in the Huffington Post last week, titling an article with the claim that Bernie Sanders could replace Donald Trump as President by way of an electoral loophole. However, “There is no loophole that allows a random person to assume the office of president. That’s pretty basic common sense but yet you clicked or even shared this article anyway.” Reading on:

There will be many people who clicked share on this post because of its headline. They may not even click to open the story. They will never actually read these words. Ironically these are the folks who need to hear it the most.

Masur argues that a lot of web users don’t bother to take the time to evaluate the claims within the source, but there may be a larger psychological aspect in play. Our willingness to accept some information but reject other sources relates to confirmation bias, a psychological factor in which we are more willing to trust a source if it conforms to our existing opinions and also to reject something if it goes against what we belief. For example, many American voters who disliked Hillary Clinton before she ran for the presidency would happily read articles about her alleged poor health, corruption and dishonesty.

Another element perceived in the 2016 presidential campaign was a widespread distrust for the so-called ‘mainstream media’. Only 14% of Republican voters had faith in the media, according to a Gallup poll from September. Many people believe that the decline of trust in the media is the media’s own fault: large media companies have let their standards slip and become noticeably partisan. In spite of this, the websites that regularly bash the ‘mainstream media’ are often highly partisan themselves – Breitbart, for example, described by Derek Thompson, a senior editor of The Atlantic, as “the Internet’s most crowded den of race-baiting conspiracy theories.”

One of the media’s biggest obstacles is the freedom for anyone to publish content on the Internet. Blogs are easy to find, read and make and their content can be copied-and-pasted across the web in a matter of seconds. For people who think that our mainstream outlets are politically biased or untrustworthy, alternative blogs are the preferred option. A consequence of this is the ability for people to decide for themselves what they want to publish. “Blogging is self-indulgent,” remarked the late journalist Christopher Hitchens. “It’s a way of achieving the dream of the unpublished writer, or the unpublishable one, which is, ‘Well, I don’t care! I can put it out there anyway.'” Blogging allows writers to dodge the scrutiny of an editor or the simple need to publish good, accurate work and publish whatever they want, when they want. The content of these blogs might be conspiracy theories, gibberish, libel or simply rubbish, but unless we want to limit bloggers’ freedom of expression, it doesn’t look like this can be stopped.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet giants intend to work harder to regulate the news and information that can be distributed across their websites, but arguably, even if their efforts are flawless triumphs, the spread of misinformation can only be reduced, not stopped. If everyone is free to publish whatever they desire, often free of charge, the only way to stop this would be to restrict online freedoms, an unpopular, authoritarian move.