Facebook and Twitter continue to draw fire from federal lawmakers over fake Russia-spawned content spilling onto those platforms ahead of the 2016 presidential election. And now it’s clearer than ever how much we lean on social media for what we would hope is non-fake news, and how vital it is to guard against the spread of phony information.
New data from the Pew Research Center shows 45 percent of American adults consume news on Facebook. That’s eye-opening enough. But what’s even more startling is that, according to Pew, half of news consumers on Facebook depend solely on that site for news.
In other words, millions of American adults turn to Facebook for real news from real media outlets — and, unfortunately, for fake news from god knows where.
To be sure, plenty of trustworthy information appears on Facebook. But far too often, posts on Facebook are passed off as fact when they’re actually pure fiction.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve flagged “news” on Facebook that was patently false, something I was able to learn from a simple Google search after the information raised my journalistic suspicions. And more than a few times, I’ve left comments on those posts imploring readers to double-check “news” before it’s published.
For me, such fact-checking is second nature. The need to double-check information was drilled into me when I was studying journalism at the University of Kansas and has been a constant in-my-head and in-the-workplace mantra ever since. One phrase I heard repeatedly in journalism school — “When your mother says she loves you, check it out” — has stuck with me all these years later.
I realize, though, that many Facebook users are not professional fact-checkers. This does not, however, absolve us of the responsibility to take care with information we read and share on Facebook or any other social media platform (or anyplace online, for that matter).
This is especially critical because, as the Columbia Journalism Review notes, “a piece of misinformation is often far more appealing and interesting than the subsequent correction. People are therefore more inclined to retweet or like a false news report than to pay attention to any subsequent correction.”
Let’s be honest: Legitimately produced content that’s published online isn’t always accurate, many times due to innocent errors made by rushed journalists and resource-starved media outlets.
Case in point: Earlier this year, I was interviewing a key executive at a major telecom company for a news article I was writing. During the interview, I sought to verify a couple of “facts” that had been attributed to the executive in a story published by one of the country’s largest and most respected daily newspapers. Both “facts,” as it turned out, were just plain wrong.
Sadly, it’s not always easy, even for those of us with journalistic chops, to separate the right stuff from the wrong stuff — unless, of course, we embrace a healthy amount of skepticism as news consumers, professional reporters and bloggers — and, increasingly, as citizen journalists.
As reviled as journalists are by President Trump and millions of Americans, it wouldn’t hurt all of us to behave like journalists in our consumption of information, no matter whether it appears on Facebook or in The New York Times.
Also, of course, Facebook and its social media siblings must be held accountable as purveyors of news. If their feet aren’t held to the fire, then the Russians, the North Koreans and others will keep treating our social media platforms like fake-news factories.
As much as Facebook plays an outsize role in disseminating information online, and, thus, in the necessity to diligently monitor that information, I don’t want to single out the world’s number 1 social media platform for criticism.
The Pew data indicates other social media platforms deserve a high level of scrutiny. Among American adults, YouTube ranks as the second most popular platform for consuming news via social media (18 percent), followed by Twitter (11 percent) and Instagram (7 percent). Today, about one-fourth of adults in the U.S. get news from at least two social media sites, Pew reports.
More and more, social media is the go-to source for information, continuing to displace traditional media outlets as our first stop in news consumption. With this shift in where we initially find news, we must be ever-vigilant in ensuring that as modern-day town criers, we’re not crying wolf.
It’s incumbent upon every one of us to police ourselves and police others in order to prevent the hideous and disheartening spread of fake news.
John Egan is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.
Photo via Pixabay