The public is well-familiar with the term “fake news.” Since the dawn of the mass media, journalists have been reporting false information. Today, media experts define “fake news” as deliberately false stories which aim to disorient readers. When social networks emerged, the media has started using them as convenient public platforms for sharing news articles. These innovations contributed to the dissemination of fake news via Facebook, Twitter, and other similar networks. In 2016, this process was especially noticeable, urging communication experts to pay attention to this phenomenon.
Compared to previous decades, reaching to large groups of people has become unprecedentedly simple. It is easy to create a website and support it with payments from advertising platforms. Therefore, every person is capable of setting up a media resource. Also, social media has become a useful tool for spreading stories due to the system of engagements. If people like a story, they react to it by liking, commenting, and sharing. As a result, more people see it and share with their friends and relatives. These features have been used to manipulate millions of Americans during the run-up to presidential elections in 2016.
The audience was not ready for this because people have never been exposed to such a significant number of fake news. During the previous elections in 2012, the social media was attracting fewer users, and they could not share false stories so vigorously. In 2016, 1.8 billion people were actively using Facebook, and 400 million individuals were posting on Twitter. All of them were eager to share stories about politics because this topic was trending. They felt the urge to support their candidates, and they were ready to believe in stories that corresponded to their position. Also, Americans have been continually losing their trust in mainstream media since the early 2010s.
The combination of these factors resulted in the unprecedented spreading of fake news in 2016. During the last three months before the elections, false news stories gained more attention of Facebook users than top pieces by major news outlets. The significant part of the stories was supporting Donald Trump, and much fewer were pro-Hillary Clinton. There were two types of fake news. Some stories were claiming that particular opinion-leaders approved or rejected one of the candidates. For example, the most successful fake piece was about Pope Francis supporting Donald Trump. Stories of the second type were “revealing” secrets aimed to compromise either Clinton or her opponent. For instance, there were articles about Hillary’s connections with ISIS.
Together, 20 most successful false news stories generated almost 9 million shares, reactions, and comments by Facebook users. Regarding the significant number of fake news and active sharing of these articles, there is evidence that an average American adult has seen and remembered at least one of them. There is a risk that their political views were affected in some way by these false stories. During the last months before the elections, the tension between supporters of Trump and Clinton peaked. People were eager to read “sensational” news that proved the rightness of their position. However, it is not likely that fake stories managed to persuade someone to switch sides. Apparently, fake news did not have a significant influence on vote shares during the elections. The passionate conservatives and liberals rather used them to become even more convinced. Therefore, the main danger of fake news is that it encourages people be more gullible. They are less likely to pay attention to information which does not correspond with their beliefs regardless of its accuracy.
After the spread of misinformation in 2016, many experts and decision-makers started discussing the urge to provide people with high-quality content. Surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg did not take the situation seriously, and many employees of Facebook are concerned about the way the social network contributes to the dissemination of fake news. This fact is alarming because many Americans perceive Facebook as their main source of news. Google, on the other hand, showed better understanding of the situation. In April, it presented the “Fact Check” feature aimed to ensure users they were reading accurate news stories.
Although this is a positive change, Google cannot combat fake news by itself. To change the situation, people should be trained to become critical thinkers with developed skills of media literacy. Also, the media providers should develop advanced technological instruments to identify fake news. These objectives require significant efforts on the part of the educational system and the media industry. The attitude of Zuckerberg indicates that not all decision-makers are ready to make changes, and society has to persuade them to win the battle for accurate information.
Overall, Americans witnessed the wide spread of misinformation in 2016 due to the combination of various factors. Although it is not clear if fake news stories have influenced the results of the presidential elections, their popularity is alarming. False articles encourage people to value emotions and beliefs higher that facts. The lack of critical thinking results in poor decision-making, which can influence the whole nation. To stop the dissemination of fake news, it is vital to change people’s approach to searching for information. They should improve their critical thinking skills and get educated about media literacy. The media industry ought to raise the quality standards for content and pay more attention to the accuracy. The search engines and social networks should incorporate effective mechanisms of filtering news and fact-checking.