How to spot fake news on your social media feed
You know fake news is a problem, but you’re not part of the problem, right? You “heart” photos of your cousin’s newborn baby. They comment to cheer on a colleague who is running her first 3 miles. You are retweeting a meme and sharing a smart thought.
But look at the meme again. If it was fake news or a bot placed by someone trying to stir up controversy, would you recognize it?
“In today’s world, no one can be sure that the information they receive is 100 percent accurate and reliable,” said Janey Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. “Even experts find it difficult to weed out fake accounts and automatic messages.”
You could read and spread inaccuracies from both sides of the party column even if your information comes from political leaders. Last month, President Trump falsely claimed that his State of the Union address drew the greatest audience ever. And Senator Bernie Sanders falsely told NBC’s Meet the Press that 40 percent of guns sold in the United States did not include a background check.
Bots push people apart
Fake news divides people, and bots can make those divisions worse. Bots are a form of artificial intelligence that can mimic human behavior. You can retweet a story or post a link to polarize people. Many are associated with Russia. “What the Russian bots are trying to do is to sow discord and get us to fight,” says Randall Minas Jr., assistant professor and director of the Information Technology Management Association at Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii.
Bots pick up keywords or hashtags on controversial topics and use computer algorithms to generate and disseminate extreme views that excite people emotionally. “These messages can create the impression of serious political polarization and major divisions in society,” says Lee.
If 320 million people disagree on what truth is, it can do much more damage to society than hacking into the State Department.
Bot networks can spread news quickly, fool social media platforms and create the impression that a topic is trending when in reality it is only posted and retweeted by computers. People then believe that these trending topics reflect what most people think. When they see conflicting opinions on the trend, they believe that there is a huge split in public opinion.
“Bots don’t create trends, they reinforce them. We saw that in Florida when David Hogg became a trending topic on multiple platforms. Bots drove that, ”says Sam Huxley, Chair of Risk and Business Strategy at communications company LEVICK. He is referring to claims that “crisis actors”, not real students, played the roles of teenagers who survived the school shootings in Parkland.
Bots don’t create trends, they reinforce them.
Why we fall for fake news
Paid actors causing trouble in times of crisis can seem almost incredible, but our brains have strong instincts for resolving conflict, explains Minas. That’s how our brains do it. Let’s say you are up for AR-15 rifles and find out that the AR-15 was used to kill 17 people in Florida. You are facing an internal conflict or what experts call cognitive dissonance. You feel good with the AR-15, but bad with the kids. So when you hear the fake news that these kids were just paid crisis actors, you feel better. You see messages repeating on your social media feeds and you believe they must be true. You can gauge the severity of the shooting at the Florida school and continue to feel good about the AR-15. Your conflict is resolved.
Paid actors causing trouble in times of crisis can seem almost incredible, but our brains have strong instincts for resolving conflict.
Minas is concerned about the threat posed by fake news and bots. “The hacking of heads, which is essentially what is happening, is hard to prove,” he says. “If 320 million people disagree about what truth is, it can do a lot more damage to society than hack your way into the State Department.”
How do you recognize the fakes?
For starters, assume that not all of the messages in your feed are true. Then:
- Question the source. If a story is from a newspaper, is it from a reputable website? The Denver Guardian, often cited in 2016, never existed and gave an empty parking lot as the address.
- Looking for confirmation. If you don’t see a story in the mainstream media, there is probably a good reason for it. “Mainstream media are motivated to get an audience,” says Huxley.
- Check the facts with third party websites like Snopes and Politifact. Admittedly, fact checking has its limits. By the time a claim is researched and proven false, it may have reached millions of accounts.
- Call out fake news that you see on your network – but do it privately. “What polarizes people further is challenging them publicly. Then people get defensive because it makes them look stupid or gullible, if they even posted it, ”says Huxley.
Botcheck.me can check Twitter for bots, and you can log into Facebook from a computer to see if you’ve liked or followed a page created by the organization behind the Russian bots.
How can you clean your feed?
Let’s be honest If you stand in line at the grocery store and scroll through your Twitter feed, you probably won’t be bothered with research and fact checking. These steps can reduce the falsified or manipulative information that could end up in your feed:
- Burst your own bubble. With every page you like or follow and every person you are friends with, your social media stream will fill up with their posts, shares and tweets. Add and delete sources and look for information that contradicts your opinion. “You don’t have to believe it or accept it, but you have to expose yourself to it,” says Minas.
- Hit the social media algorithm. Platforms show us the information they think we want to see. “The articles that you have a reaction to – that you like or that you like – are the ones [social media sites] will start getting more sources, ”says Minas. Click links for news article websites to expand the display.
- Don’t assume the video is real. One worrying new trend is fake videos – using artificial intelligence to put people in situations they’ve never been in.
- Find the bot warning signs. Does this person only post on one topic? Who else are they following? Do they post or tweet hundreds of times a day trying to get their message across before they get caught? Are there a lot of typos or grammatical errors? Do you post in multiple languages? Botcheck.me can check Twitter for bots, and you can log into Facebook from a computer to see if you’ve liked or followed a page created by the organization behind the Russian bots.
- Realize your prejudices. We all tend to agree with information we already believe and disapprove of information that contradicts our beliefs.
- Watch out for trust transfers. If your best friend shares something, you will likely believe it. We trust information posted by people we trust, and that trust is carried over to the message regardless of the origin of the message.
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