Fact: the advancement of technology and the development of social media platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp – has forever changed the way humans of all generations, engage, connect and consume information. I mean, who would have thought 240 characters would have also empowered the voices of the masses. Unfortunately, with our current POTUS, it is becoming more evident every day that we have yet to see how big this digital beast really is. The speed at which news travels is absolutely insane. It only takes a matter of minutes maybe even seconds to destroy the stock value of a company or send people into a panic. Now, this isn’t to say that it is all doom and gloom, the social web has brought about a heightened awareness to many social causes that have invoked the good samaritan in many of us. However, it seems as though it is a natural tendency for humans to become more intrigued by salacious, edge of their seat rumors, including what MIT Professor Sinan Aral calls, false news. In his Harvard Business Review article, Truth, Disrupted, Professor Aral dives into key findings from a study published in Science magazine co-authored by Aral, Soroush Vosoughi, and Deb Roy, about the spread of false news online.
The study looked at 126,000 posts across all content, not just news articles on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. Something that is even probably more impressive (well for me at least), was that the team built an algorithm to identify fake articles with a 91% accuracy rate. The results revealed that “false news spread online faster, further, and deeper than truth does”, but “false political news traveled farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than any other type.” And if you think bots had something to do with it- well think again. According to the study, bots spread both true and false content at the same rate. Another interesting finding was that users that were spreading the news didn’t have huge followings. It was mainly people with very small follower counts and were not as active on Twitter. But what does this all mean and why should we care?
We have only scratched the surface when it comes to the danger presented by the spreading of lies or rumors. It seems as though many people, including important political figures, have forgotten about the basic principles of do no harm to others or tell no lies. I mean, I don’t think it would hurt if TV networks or Netflix started broadcasting Ten Commandments or even Dogma on a regular basis. All jokes aside, we live in a constantly connected world, where toddlers are learning how to swipe right and left on a mobile device. The power of the fingertip has increased exponentially with the explosion of social platforms like Twitter or Facebook. In addition, the way we consume information has changed from watching the news on TV or Sunday paper to a completely digitally immersed forum. Therefore the ability to reach the masses in seconds is easy to do, but no one tells you the potential ripple effects of your social interactions. Having a social media account is a great power that many can have and as they say, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So, what happens if you aren’t paying attention before clicking that retweet button?
Well, how about the recent election and Cambridge Analytica scandal. As Professor Aral points out from the ongoing Robert Mueller investigation, “it was chilling to watch former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, describing how his company used fabricated stories, propagated online, to influence global elections.” It was even more disturbing as I watched a news segment where they interviewed a woman who had reshared a false news post and the reporter was trying to explain to her the origin of that post was from Russia. She was in complete denial. I just sat there with my jaw to the floor, thinking there is something fundamentally wrong with the fabric of this nation. It’s astonishing at how much power and influence every digital user has inherited by simply creating a social media account. In my opinion, it is the combination of technology, the social web and human needs that has led to digital wildfires that have mainly divided our country, our states, our cities, and neighborhoods.
According to Aral, “the spread of misinformation on social media is an alarming phenomenon that scientists have yet to fully understand.” I would go even further to say that the spread of false news is an alarming phenomenon that anyone has yet to fully understand. I would venture to say that it goes beyond algorithms and digs deeper into the human psyche and what is culturally changing in our environments. Of course, these are more challenging factors that need to be addressed in greater depth. In the meantime, it is important that all sides, content creators, and consumers, understand and more importantly take accountability for the moral and ethical repercussions of their actions. In addition, I agree with Aral, that there needs to be some type of digital standards, rules or governance in place that rewards and punishes both sides.
Of course, governance is only one of the many tactics needed to fight for the truth. As content consumers, we have an obligation to help ensure the safety and sanity of our community. I’d also like to think that as humans we would want to strive to conduct ourselves with the highest integrity. However, as I mentioned earlier, we are prone to feed the rumor mill without taking any accountability for our actions. Therefore, we need to understand the cultural changes taking place, why it’s happening and what we need to do to fix it. As content creators, it isn’t so much about understanding the consequences, but actually being held accountable in a way that causes fundamental changes in how they operate. Lastly, the technology that got us to this point is the same technology that we will need to help us to moderate the creation of false news and confine the spread of the digital wildfires. As always, it’s always easier said than done, but we’d be foolish to idly stand by. Fighting for what’s right has never been wrong. Right?