Ah, the Internet. While it may give us access to virtually the entirety of known information, it also gives us plenty of opportunities to be misled. You can learn a lot and stay informed, but unfortunately it seems as though learning is becoming less and less common. In the age of fake news, if what I've personally witnessed on social media is any indication, it seems as though most people are less likely to seem out information and are more likely to seek out rhetoric that supports their personal biases.
While politics tend to be the biggest source of false information being spread across social media, it goes far beyond that. So Yummy, for example, is a company that makes "cooking" videos that tend to go viral on Facebook. Their attractively simple recipes seem to always come out as something fantastic or unexpected. They're so alluring that at times the recipes seem too good to be true. As it turns out, they often are too good to be true; So Yummy is owned by First Media, the same parent company that owns other viral video companies like Blossom, Blusher, and Baby First. First Media and its children companies have a notorious reputation for not particularly caring whether or not the content they're creating is actually factual. Instead, the priority is creating a video that is attractive and likely to be shared. Many of So Yummy's recipes don't even work the way that they're described in the video, and what you're seeing as the end result is not the product of the steps that have been outlined; it's an end result that looks appealing and is likely to get clicks.
Does Your Needs Feed Make You Feel Attacked or Affirmed?
Unfortunately, it's the same strategy of seeking out clicks and shares that fuels the spreading of misinformation in areas that have more impact than silly cooking videos. Publishers typically make money based upon their content's reach and interactions. Sponsors put money behind content that is most likely to get their advertisements in front of their target audience, which typically means that exciting, inflammatory content is more likely to have money behind it than content that is focused on being factually accurate.
For example, a headline that proclaims "This Senator's Entire Platform is Meant to Take Away Your Rights" is a headline that's going to enrage one political party and rally the support of another. Regardless of which side the article is in favor of, folks on both sides of the debate are going to flock to that post to defend their point of view. The publisher doesn't particularly care about the debating; what they care about is the fact that people are clicking the link and commenting on the article. The more it gets shared, commented upon, and clicked, the more money the publisher makes.
On the contrary, less inciting headlines aren't as likely to drive the same kind of traffic and therefore result in less revenue. Consider which of the following headlines you'd be more likely to either click on or view the comments with a morbid fascination:
- "House Democrats Win Big in Efforts to Impeach Trump"
- "Investigation Into Members of White House Administration Ongoing"
One headline evokes clear partisanship. If you're a supporter of Trump, you'll see the first article as an attack on your beliefs; if you don't support Trump, you'll see the first article as confirmation of what you believe. On both sides, the second article may be intriguing, but it doesn't take a stance on the investigation into the presidential administration– merely that it is occurring. There's a good chance that the publisher of the first article doesn't particularly care whether you're offended or excited, only that you're clicking.
There's the television news cliché of "if it bleeds, it leads," meaning that the stories that evoke the strongest emotional reaction are the stories that get featured when the news airs. The same is true for the Internet, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say "if they're ticked, it'll be clicked."
Are You An Information Hypocrite?
In addition to giving misinformation room to spread, digital media also perpetuates personal biases by allowing users to create an echo chamber of their own opinions. Publications passing themselves off as serious journalism are all over the place, and they write pieces for the sole purpose of inflaming those who already agree with them. In fact, it's hard to call these publications "news" at all, as partisan propaganda would be a better term.
Due to the social aspect of social media, partisan pieces tend to bounce around rapidly amongst like-minded peers without much thoughtful consideration about where the piece is coming from. Something pisses you off, and you know it'll piss off certain members of your friend group, so you share it. Something excites you that you know will excite your friends, so you share that too.
Unfortunately this doesn't lead to well-rounded information. It leads you to a series of conclusions that confirm what you already believe. As a result, if you're not being critical of where you're getting your news, you're not really being a responsible citizen of the internet. Do a quick audit of the news pieces you've shared, clicked on, or commented on on social media and check to see where it's coming from. If you're seeing an abundance of publications like Fox News, MSNBC, Breitbart, or Mother Jones... you're probably just confirming your own biases, not actually learning about what's really going on in politics. Partisan propaganda is a side effect of news illiteracy– the inability to distinguish factual outcomes from conclusions that are based in one-sided bias.
The best way to develop news literacy and avoid bias is pretty straightforward: avoid biased media sources.
As much of a "no shit" statement as that is, most people struggle with this. They get caught up in what they want to read that they don't consider its implications when treating it as truth. Seeking out unbiased (or at least less-biased) media sources can take some getting used to, but the handy chart from AllSides should help make it pretty simple.