During a press conference, President Obama passionately spoke about fake news on the internet and cautioned against “active misinformation” which could pose a threat to democracy. Obama called on young Americans to avoid well packaged “misinformation,” according to USA Today. Earlier this week in Greece, Obama said the “unprecedented exchange of information” has created a “volatile politics” in Western countries, which leads people to begin to question their national identities.
An astounding majority of U.S. adults, around 62 percent, get news on social media, and 18 percent do so frequently, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. In 2012, based on a slightly different question of asking participants about “seeing” their news instead of “getting” their news, 49 percent of U.S. adults reported “seeing” their news on social media, according to the website Journalism.
“[‘Active misinformation’] packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television… If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not — and particularly in an age of social media where so many people are getting their information in sound bites and snippets off their phones — if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”
According to Journalism, Facebook reaches 67 percent of U.S. adults. Therefore, the two-thirds of Facebook users who get news on the platform, amount to 44 percent of the general population. Alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama discussed discerning truth from fiction on social media.
During the hourlong press conference, Obama took several moments to make a passionate attack on false news stories disseminated on Facebook and other social media platforms. Obama called these false reports a threat to democracy.
“If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect. We won’t know what to fight for. And we can lose so much of what we’ve gained in terms of the kind of democratic freedoms and market-based economies and prosperity that we’ve come to take for granted.”
According to USA Today, several major television networks have picked up on deliberately faked online stories. One notable case is as when Fox News reported that Obama had deleted messages of support for Hillary Clinton on his Twitter. Fox later apologized.
During the 2016 election campaign, fake news stories spread more quickly on social media than real news from major outlets like the New York Times and USA Today, according to an analysis conducted by Buzzfeed News.
Facebook has been subjected to much criticism for allowing fake news stories and hoaxes to spread to millions of users during a critical period in American history. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has denied accusations that Facebook swayed the election through the circulation of fake news.
“Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.”
Mark Zuckerberg said he and his team have made efforts to crack down on fake Facebook news. Zuckerberg said it’s “pretty crazy” to think fake Facebook news affected the outcome of the race, according to the New York Times.
“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea… Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”
Scientific American agrees with Zuckerberg and suggests people are simply drawn to news that affirms their political viewpoint. Also, thanks to personal Facebook filtering tools, people are only exposed to content that reaffirms their biases.
“There’s ample evidence that people are drawn to news that affirms their political viewpoint. Facebook’s software learns from users’ past actions; it tries to guess which stories they are likely to click or share in the future. Taken to its extreme, this produces a filter bubble, in which users are exposed only to content that reaffirms their biases. The risk, then, is that filter bubbles promote misperceptions by hiding the truth.”
It may be confusing to discern what is real and what is fake with all the news going around regarding the 2016 presidential election. Headlines such as: “The Pope Endorses Donald Trump,” “The Electoral College Is Rigged,” “The Russians Hacked The Election,” and “FBI James Comey Letters” have dominated mainstream news outlets. There’s a wide array of stories to grasp the attention of viewers. An interesting headline this week was, “Facebook Fake News Writer: Donald Trump Is In The White House Because Of Me.”
The Los Angeles Times posted a list of fake news sources compiled by Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor at Merrimack College. Ironically, the list included a bunch of right-leaning news websites. A writer for the Los Angeles Times pointed out that Zimdars’ list includes what she calls satirical attire as well as false and misleading news sources. However, the large, bold font title begins with “False, Misleading…” and ends with “news sources.” Also, paragraph six in a small print disclaimer reads, “And as a reminder, not all of the sources listed below should be considered fake.” The list has since been removed due to criticism.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken the fake news controversy very seriously. These social media platforms are now looking into the issues, forming task forces, putting new policies in place, and possibly banning sites that traffic in fake news, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Obama told David Remnick, an editor for the New Yorker, that we live in a world in which having a limited capacity to disseminate opposing information can have a major impact on facts.
“…Everything is true and nothing is true… An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal — that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
Obama has spoken about the role technology has played in helping the populist movements in the U.K. and now Trump’s victory in the United States.
Barack Obama then said if Trump doesn’t take his new role seriously, he won’t be in power for long. These are Obama’s strongest remarks since the election.
“The extraordinary demands that are placed on the United States not just by its own people, but by people around the world — that forces you to focus… That demands seriousness… And if you’re not serious about the job, then you probably won’t be there very long.”
What steps should Facebook take to combat fake news? Should Facebook filter through the millions of articles posted and decide which news articles should be shared on its website?
Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!
[Featured Image by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images]