Facebook’s fake news: ‘post-truth’ is the word

Liar, liar: Four genuine fake news headlines which were shared on Facebook this year.

‘Post-truth’ could be ‘one of the defining words of our time’, says Oxford Dictionaries. The announcement comes as Facebook continues defending itself from criticism over fake news stories.

Last year Oxford Dictionaries declared that the word which best described ‘the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015’ was in fact an emoji — specifically the ‘face with tears of joy emoji’.

But 2016 has been a very different year. After a divisive referendum in Britain and an explosive election in America, this year’s top word is ‘post-truth’. According to Oxford, its usage rose by 2000% as people tried to understand the new political landscape. The trend has been fuelled by ‘social media as a news source’ and a ‘growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment.’

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has spent all week fighting off criticisms over this very subject. Since Donald Trump’s victory, his shocked opponents have been searching for answers. How could a man who so frequently lies be elected president?

One possible explanation? Fake news on Facebook.

Almost half of American adults get their news from the site. The problem with this is that its algorithm promotes the stories with the most ‘engagement’ without checking if they are true. During the election, hundreds of fake news sites exploited this by writing outlandish stories about the candidates. Buzzfeed found that 38% of stories shared on three popular right-wing Facebook groups were fake, plus 19% of stories on three left-wing groups.

Our brains are wired to believe stories which confirm our own opinions — and so thousands shared stories about Pope Francis endorsing Trump (which never happened), or Trump calling Republicans the ‘dumbest group of voters’ in 1998 (which he did not do).

The result of all this, say some, is that voters do not just disagree about politics any more — they disagree on truth itself.

Welcome to the ‘post-truth’ world.

Mark Zuckerberg says it is ‘a pretty crazy idea’ to say that Facebook influenced the election. But ‘dozens’ of his employees have anonymously admitted that they are concerned. Meanwhile, Google has announced that it will try to curb the profit that can be earned from fake news.

Pants on fire

This can’t go on, say some. Facebook must stop fake news stories from spreading so quickly. The rest of us must try to heal society’s divisions and break out of our own echo chambers. Facts are the lifeblood of democracy. But in the post-truth age, all that matters is what you feel to be the truth. That will not end well.

Calm down, say others. The losers of the election are hysterically declaring a ‘post-truth’ age because they cannot possibly understand how anyone could disagree with them. To dismiss half the population as uninformed, emotional conspiracy theorists with no grip on reality is extremely patronising — and it does nothing to ‘heal divisions’.

You Decide

  1. How much did Facebook affect the outcome of the US election?
  2. Have we entered an age of ‘post-truth’ politics?

Activities

  1. The shortlist for word of the year comprised Adulting, Alt-right, Brexiteer, Chatbot, Coulrophobia, Glass cliff, Hygge, Latinx, Post-truth and Woke. As a class, look up the definitions and then vote on which you think best represents 2016.
  2. Write a satirical fake news story about the US election.

Some People Say...

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do a few fake news stories matter?
Understanding current affairs is crucial to democracy. Politics is all about shaping and responding to the world around us. But if two sides of an electorate cannot agree on basic facts about that world, it makes healthy debate about those issues almost impossible.
How do I know if a story is fake?
There are a few different ways. Look at the source of the story to check whether it comes from a reliable website — just because something looks like news doesn’t make it true. Read the whole story, not just the headline. Search to see if other journalists are reporting on the same thing. And don’t depend entirely on Facebook and Twitter for your news — you will get a much broader knowledge of the world if you look beyond your own narrow timeline.

Word Watch

Referendum
In June, 52% of British voters chose to leave the EU. The Remain campaign accused the Leave side of misleading voters, not least by promising to spend £350 million a week extra on the NHS.
Election
Last week, the Republican Donald Trump was elected president with 290 electoral college votes (in the American system, candidates need 270 of these to win).
Frequently lies
The fact-checking website Politifact rates 70% of Trump’s statements as mostly false, false, or ‘pants on fire’ — a label given to the most outrageous lies. Hillary Clinton received similar ratings 31% of the time.
Half
According to Pew Research Center in May 2016, 44% got their news from Facebook. In total, 62% get news on social media.
38%
To reach this figure Buzzfeed analysed and fact-checked the posts from three ‘hyperpartisan’ groups from each end of the political spectrum over the course of seven weekdays in September.
Wired
Psychologists call this ‘self-confirmation bias’ — the tendency to consume stories that fit with our idea of the world, and dismiss anything that challenges it.

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