Social media allows information to travel more quickly than ever before. While access to information is a good thing, it has also led to the rise of fake news by creating a world where people think that what they are reading and seeing is factual news when, in fact, much of it is unverified.
Millions of people post 24 hours a day about news and things happening in the world. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of U.S. adults get their news from social media. Referencing other sources to put together a more complete— or incomplete— picture is easier than ever before with all the different social media outlets. The herd mentality does not help in slowing the spread of news, fake or otherwise. Now, when one person shares something on their page, it spreads like wildfire.
For example, during the recent Amazon Rainforest fires, a tweet that went viral did not contain current photos of the fire but had photos from 1989 and 2012. The photos were misleading and did not depict up-to-date news.
Also, there was misreporting during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. A student at Brown University named Sunil Tripathi was falsely identified as one of the suspects of the bombing from a surveillance photograph. It began on Reddit, then spread to Twitter. Tripathi had disappeared from Brown about a month before the bombings. However, this post was the catalyst for journalists from mainstream outlets to call the Tripathi family all night, along with sending TV cameras to their home.
There are obvious positive sides to social media’s involvement with the news. Brutalities can no longer be hidden by governments because people post photos to social media, and there have been cases where it has contributed to solving serious crimes.
It allows citizens to take part in being journalists, and in 2011, this ability helped shine a light on police mistreatment during the Arab Spring. Also, in June, 2019, social media went blue for Sudan, resulting in increased awareness of the human atrocities that were happening there. While the massacres in Sudan had been going on since December, 2018, they were not widely known until users changed their profile pictures to blue. Without social media, neither of these instances would have been as widely shared.
In Paul Lewis’ TED Talk, “How mobile phones helped solve two murders,” the Guardian reporter talks about solving a murder using readers as “co-producers.” By sending a general request via Twitter for witnesses of a death during a G20 protest in London, he was able to track down video footage that proved the police were responsible for a bystander’s death.
Despite the positives, more needs to be done to make sure people understand that information posted on social media sites is not verified, factual truth. The only place to find that would be at a legitimate news site.
Companies like Facebook and Twitter need to strengthen their policies about posting. Facebook, a major platform for fake news spam accounts, has taken some action. They are mainly focusing on preventing fake news by “disrupting economic incentives because most false news is financially motivated; building new products to curb the spread of false news; and helping people make more informed decisions when they encounter false news.”
It is a good thing for these companies to make it harder to post false information, but, in reality, there is only so much they can do. The truth is that people need to take more responsibility when reposting “news.” There is a step that everyone should take that would help the situation immeasurably: before reposting anything, verify that it really happened.