How Does “Fake” News Become News?

How Does “Fake” News Become News?


On November 9, 2016, a man named Eric Tucker saw a line of buses near an anti-Trump rally. Tucker tweeted about what he saw to his 40 Twitter followers. Basically, he tweeted to the equivalent of a well-attended family barbecue. Barely more than 24 hours later hundreds of thousands of people had shared his story, including president-elect Donald Trump. Awesome, right? Eric’s tweet made it to the top. Inspiration for all of us who wish we had more followers on social media. But there was one big problem. The story was wrong. A false correlation. #FakeNews. And Eric knew it. Eric regretted it. But It was too late. Eric’s tweet had morphed into a national news story. So here’s how “fake news” becomes news. And what you can do to recognize it. Before Eric’s tweet could travel from his timeline to the big time, it needed signal boosters, or influencers. Think of these as people or places on the internet with big audiences– audiences who trust these sources enough to share what they share. This tweet’s first signal boost came from Reddit user Juju, who started a thread on a prominent Reddit community for Trump supporters. And there was Eric’s tweet, followed by hundreds of comments. Do you know why the fake news didn’t stop there? Confirmation bias! Who let this little thing in here? Get to the point! Um. Right. Anyway. Confirmation bias is when you tend to believe stories or opinions that back up what you already think or believe. So if you want something to be true, you’re more likely to believe it’s true. Confirmation bias happens to all of us, no matter our political affiliation. I love that shirt on you. Aww, thanks! What have you worn it like three days straight? I just read an article that said that wearing dirty clothes, like you do, leads to better grades. I choose to 100% believe this. Anyway, back to Reddit. Eric’s tweet is the exact kind of story that might trick someone who wasn’t thinking critically. Teenagers, for example, don’t have a lot of trust in mainstream media outlets but view user-generated content– like a video, or say, a photo from a witness like Eric– as more trustworthy. And many young people use Reddit as a news source. So something like Eric’s tweet might appeal to them. Turns out it appealed to a lot of people. Eric’s tweets slept on Reddit overnight. The next morning– that’s when this story got crazy. On November 10, a user on a popular conservative discussion forum linked to the Reddit thread. From here, the tweet traveled to Facebook. Influential pages such as “Robertson Family Values” and “Right Wing News” shared the story. According to the New York Times, 300,000 plus Facebook users followed suit. Then the tweet traveled to the blogs… Several conservative blogs used Eric’s tweet to report that paid protestors were spotted in Austin. From the blogs, the story traveled to big-time signal-boosters like radio personalities Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, who reach millions of listeners each week. Millions. By then the story reached enough ears to show up on more mainstream outlets, like Fox News. The end result? The president-elect himself tweeted about paid protesters in Austin, barely more than 24 hours after a guy with 40 followers and a camera phone made a guess. And no one did anything to stop the story from spreading. Some people tried to stop it, even Eric himself. Can I get animal control in here or like, like a cat? Silence! Sorry. Twitter users, Snopes, The Austin-American Statesman– they all stepped in to say the buses weren’t for protestors, but for some conference at the hotel Eric photographed. Right. So why didn’t anyone listen? For one, fact-checking stories aren’t as exciting as a conspiracy. But also because of filter bubbles also known as echo chambers. Basically, echo chambers and filter bubbles are the places we live on the internet. Thanks to algorithms from places like Facebook and Google, and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who agree with us, we are also surrounded by news stories that feed- Confirmation bias! Yes, that. Anyway. And stories that might make us question what we already know– or want to hear– have a hard time breaking through those filter bubbles. At every point of Eric’s tweet’s journey, people could have stopped its momentum. But how? One, choose reliable sources. This means being able to look at where a story is coming from and determining whether you can trust this source and what biases it may have. This takes practice, and yes, sometimes, patience that we don’t always have on the internet. One rule of thumb to keep in mind: If a story seems too good– or too wild or too politically convenient– to be true it probably is. Two, learn how to search and scroll like a pro. Basically, search engines like Google and social media sites will change your results based on your online activity. Knowing this can help you find quality information, not just information these sites think you will like. From funny videos to fact-based news, the internet is endless. So seek out a wide range of voices, and you’ll see that reflected in your search results, your social media feeds and even the advertisements you see. This is just a starting point. As Eric’s tweet teaches us, our stories, even on social media, have consequences. Perhaps if we learn the ways in which signal-boosters and the internet spread fake stories, we can also learn how to spread the truth. Even when it bursts our bubbles.

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