Fake news: more than just a punchline

The term ‘fake news’ is bandied about a lot these days and is largely used as a joke. Despite this flippant use of the term, however, the fact remains that there is a plethora of misinformation on the internet. In addition to this, all too many of us seem ready to believe anything that conforms to our worldview without first confirming that it is true.

A recent study published in Science explored the stories that were most circulated on Twitter from the site’s inception in 2006 all the way up until 2017.

The study catalogued rumours that had been spread on Twitter and were confirmed to be true or false by six separate fact checking websites, including Snopes and TruthorFiction, and then used this to learn how widely true stories were shared compared to those with factual inaccuracies or misleading details.   

The study found that false or misleading news stories were, on average, an alarming 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than truthful ones. It was also found that there was a steep upturn in the circulation of unfounded political rumours during the 2012 and 2016 US presidential elections. While this may be unsurprising, it is worrying nonetheless to consider the possibility that fake political rumours may have influenced people’s thoughts towards political candidates at such important times. 

Digital vigilantism was also touched upon in the study, which mentioned the multiple rumours that were spread through Twitter in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombing.

Reddit was largely responsible for many of these false rumours, with users going so far as to leak the identity of one ‘suspect’; Sunil Tripathi, an undergraduate at Brown University who had gone missing some weeks before the attack. The story was circulated on Twitter and even reported by news outlets including ABC News and the BBC. By the time the FBI had confirmed the real identity of the bombers, Tripathi’s family had been subjected to numerous phone calls and hateful messages on his Facebook page. Tripathi was later found dead, having taken his own life before the bombing took place.

While this specific study was about Twitter, it is clear that every social media platform has similar issues with false stories being presented as reality. Facebook, for example, has become a minefield of elderly relatives sharing blatantly false stories and statistics, often with no accredited sources, blindly believing anything that supports their perception of the world.

What we can take away from this is that fake news is far more than just a punchline to jokes about Donald Trump. It can influence people’s political views, impact the lives of innocent bystanders caught up in the latest frenzy, and leave the general public with a distorted view of reality.

Ultimately, just because false statistics and misleading headlines are prevalent on the internet, this does not mean that we as a society need fall prey to fake news. Critical thinking has perhaps never been more important than it is now. Before sharing a story or a statistic with your friends and followers, be sure that you have read the full article and fact checked the piece for yourself. While it can be tempting to believe something just because it fits in with your own personal beliefs, it is imperative that we all put more effort into making sure that what we share online is truth and not fiction.

Image credit: Wokandapix via Pixabay

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