After the 2016 election, an analysis by Buzzfeed uncovered a troubling trend: fake news from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs outperformed news from established media sources on social media during the three months before election day. President Obama lambasted the spread of fake news in a November 17 speech as undermining the foundation of democracy. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, initially denied that fake news on his site played a decisive role in the election, but later announced measures to control its spread on the site.
“Social media” has been a buzzword for almost a decade now, yet few Americans seem to have truly internalized the meaning of this phrase. The term media is not merely memes and cat videos; it is not a triteness. It is the fourth estate, a pillar of modern society. The ascendency of social media means that the responsibility of reporting news and facts is no longer concentrated in the hands of professionals. It is now distributed among hundreds of millions of ordinary Facebook and Twitter users—for better or for worse. While social media can be empowering, the same tools enable falsehood and lies to spread faster and farther than ever. How did we get here, and what should governments and citizens do about it?
From Papers to Portals. The Internet was not always structured to distribute information socially. In the 1990’s, at the dawn of the World Wide Web, most people got information from portals. For example, the 1994 portal, “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web”—later known as Yahoo!—curated links to interesting websites. Functionally, portals are basically just online newspapers. Editors curate a collection of content. Links take the place of headlines.
From Portals to Search Boxes. Portals soon gave way to search results pages as the main way people interacted with information on the Internet, notably with Google’s 1998 entry into the search engine space. Now information was curated and ranked by an algorithm linked to keywords.
Search algorithms are often touted as “organic” or “objective” reflections of web content. But humans control the algorithm. Engineers edit the code to control for fraud and misuse by content creators. Content creators respond by tweaking search optimization methods to achieve higher rankings in search results, prompting further tweaks by the algorithm’s engineers—and so on, in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game. Google is now researching ways to evaluate the factual accuracy of its sources as part of its search ranking algorithm (pdf).
From Search to Feeds. Portals and search results are still very much with us. But feeds, the social media streams of friends’ posts, have become the dominant way many Americans interact with information. According to a Pew Research survey published in May 2016, 62 percent of U.S. adults get news from social media.
Like search, social media content is funneled into our feeds by algorithms—which are, in turn, controlled by engineers at Facebook and Twitter. Much emphasis has been placed on tweaking these algorithms to stem the tide of fake news. But unlike the passive consumers of portals and search results, social media users actively determine what content others see. The seemingly trivial actions we take on social media—clicking “like” or “heart” or “share”—collectively shape social consensus in a way that has eclipsed the power of broadcasters, editors, and search engines.
The new fourth estate. Journalists who produce or curate content have typically been trained on sources and evidence. As in any profession, some journalists are hacks or frauds, and of course every human being has biases. But institutional safeguards exist. Many established media organizations employ fact-checkers, or at least editors who give stories a critical glance before airing or publication. Journalists who publish false or misleading stories risk being disciplined by superiors, or at least held accountable by their professional colleagues.
Most Facebook and Twitter users, on the other hand, are not journalists. They—we—have our own jobs and responsibilities. The act of liking or reposting a news story we come across—publishing its headline in front of perhaps hundreds of our friends or followers’ eyes—is not seen as an act of journalism. It’s often something we do while unwinding at the end of a hard day. We do not have editors who are paid to tell us, “that story seems suspicious, maybe you should double check its sources before posting it.”
Any debate about the media and politics is bound to evoke strong feelings—even moreso when the debate hinges on the question of who should be the arbiter of truth and falsehood. But it is not a topic the government can afford to ignore. Memes that spread on social media often deal directly with data produced by dedicated civil servants, such as this misleading conspiratorial attack on the BLS’s official unemployment rate. More broadly, it is government’s responsibility to combat fraud and abuse, to allocate scarce resources, and to meet the numerous security challenges facing our country competently and professionally—tasks which are impossible in a representative democracy where misinformation and lies outcompete evidence and facts.
The nature of media has changed rapidly since the invention of the printing press, and will doubtless continue to change. Consumers and producers of media will adapt and adjust. But today, for government employees and citizens, the burden now falls on all of us not to be passive consumers of information, but active investigators and advocates for the truth.
Adnan Mahmud is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.