Fake News, Social Media & a Culture of Ignorance

Post-truth, this word was named Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016.  Defined as: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief. Not too long ago, many would have said this scenario would be impossible or at least improbable, on a large scale. Unfortunately, the more you pay attention to this issue, the more you realize how prominent fake news is in shaping public opinion-and how dangerous that can become.

A recent study from Pew shows that a majority of adults, up to 62%, get news from social media and about one fifth of them do so frequently, which isn’t a problem by itself. The real problem lies with the inability of social media to distinguish between a real news story and one that is false or misleading-they all look the same and once they start getting shared there’s no stopping it. Further exacerbating this problem is the fact that fake news stories frequently have outrageous headlines making them more likely to be shared and therefore, viewed by a wider audience. And finally, it is thought that the recent nationalist response of many countries to rebuke globalism has led to such widespread distrust of ‘the establishment’ that outlying news sources are beginning to be regarded as the only place that reports factual information, even if that is a stark contrast to reality.

And it would seem that nobody is immune from exposure to fake news. President Elect Donald Trump was frequently cited during his campaign for creating or re-using false information and the entire campaign season was fraught with widespread fake news stories about both candidates. On his own Twitter account, he tweeted that social media sites were burying information about the criminal investigation of Clinton just a few days before the election. This information was potentially false, yet it was retweeted and liked thousands of times. In fact, unbiased organizations that studied the veracity of the claims made by both candidates found Trump to have dishonest elements in up to 70% of his claims, while Clinton only 28%. Despite this, Trump was almost always cited as the candidate who appeared to be more honest to a larger part of the electorate.

And the United States is not the only place with this problem. It is widely believed that fake news largely influenced the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the EU, as well. This is no small matter. Both of these examples are huge political and social events that are certain to have global consequences. Yet, somehow, misinformation reigned supreme even when every single individual has the power to verify the information with the click of a button. How do we explain this? What do we do now?

Isaac Asimov is quoted as once saying, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” It could very well be that this phenomenon is contributing to the effect, or it could be that with our increased reliance on social media, we are conditioning ourselves to lose the ability to differentiate fact from fiction. Social media allows us to connect with like-minded individuals and without the diversity of unbiased, fact-based information then it is natural that individuals will believe information that confirms their existing beliefs.

In this context, it is clear that greater education and discrimination on sources and data is critical for all social media users and news consumers. It is also clear that social media companies have a duty to respond to this, and indeed, Facebook has indicated its intent to try to curb the spread of fake news, though it is not certain yet how they will accomplish that goal. In the meantime, it is imperative that everyone take the time to verify information, especially prior to sharing it. Knowledge is said to be power, which is why George Bernard Shaw warned, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach and social strategist: Author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age