Why Do We Share Fake News?

The underlying premise of this blog—indeed its title—is a rejection of the tech-utopian pursuit of more as a virtue unto itself.  It is true that the presumed benefit of more access to more content happens to be one of the commonly-alleged rationales for mass copyright infringement, but the destructive power of more goes far beyond the interests of authors of creative works. And we’re watching this destruction happen in real time.

The fact that the current President of the United States can get away with labeling news he does not like as “fake news” is one consequence of our misguided faith in more—arguably the most prominent and acutely-negative result of information democratization. By contrast, the very subtle moment that inspired this blog was the day a friend of mine—well-educated and liberal—shared a story in 2011 that I knew to be false.  When I pointed out the inaccuracy, he countered that he cared more about the point of view being advocated than the legitimacy of the article.  Then, when I discovered how many places this same article had been re-published online, the name The Illusion of More became a thing.

But why do people share fake news? Why was my otherwise-reasonable friend unwilling to temper his eagerness to share a story that was simply untrue? “When someone chooses to share a fake news story on Facebook, Twitter, via text message, or on Whatsapp; when they post a conservative meme to their wall; or when they ‘like’ a YouTube video about a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, they may well be doing it to signal their identity and affiliate themselves with like-minded others,” writes Alice E. Marwick in a new academic paper titled Why Do People Share Fake News? A Sociotechnical Model of Media Effects.

An assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina, Marwick does not fully answer her titular question, acknowledging that she and her colleagues are far from those conclusions. Instead, she describes the complexity of the fake news problem, recommending avenues for further research and a language for more accurately discussing the issues.

For instance, the term “fake news is simultaneously too broad and too narrow,” says Marwick, advocating the more general term problematic information to encompass the complex universe of “hoaxes, memes, YouTube videos, conspiracy theories, and hyper-partisan news sites,” which all contribute in different ways to the fun-house mirror version of contemporary society we see via social media. At the same time, she describes political news as “one ingredient in a bouillabaisse of photographs, personal stories, advertisements, movie trailers, celebrity gossip, sports news …,” asserting that “In social spaces, the traditional journalistic value of objectivity no longer makes sense: virtually every story is augmented with someone’s opinion.”

The literal meaning of “fake news” is typically an enterprise in which the creator of a spoof has no agenda other than to chum the waters of social media with click-bait in order to generate ad revenue.  Often, these “stories” are polysemous, says Marwick, meaning they can be interpreted in divergent ways and, therefore, shared for opposing reasons. She writes the following about one of these false stories: “‘White Baseball Players Kneel in the 50’s [sic] to Protest Black Lynchings,’ could be interpreted in support of NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s position on Black Lives Matter, or it could be a refutation of the history of White racism.”

The polysemy of this untrue story might mean more revenue for the fake news-maker, but it certainly means more reinforcement of competing, phantom narratives driving potentially reasonable citizens further apart.  Or if the story was created by a malicious actor, like a Russian agent, then the division it sows is the intent of the spoof.  Regardless, the lack of truth in the story does not stop its being shared by people for divergent reasons, and Marwick wants to better understand why this is the case.

Opening the Overton Window

At present, Marwick notes that the data does reveal that Republicans are swimming in a larger pond of problematic information than Democrats, but there is “still a plethora of false content that appeals to people with left-wing sensibilities.” By democratizing news (meaning anybody gets to produce it), we have widened the Overton window, “the range of political viewpoints that are socially acceptable in American society,” thereby fostering what Marwick describes as an often-subtle correspondence between problematic information online and more mainstream outlets that will encode extremist views into moderate-sounding reportage or messaging.

A good example of this occurred recently in my congressional district in Upstate New York. The white, Republican incumbent employed a rhetorical attack on his black, Democratic challenger that likely would not have been attempted as recently as two years ago. Although the Democratic candidate is a pro-business attorney and Rhodes Scholar (qualities that might normally invite labels like “elitist”), the fact that he briefly dabbled in rap music early in his career inspired the incumbent Republican to assert that a “former rapper does not represent our rural values.”

The coded “former rapper” standing in for “black man” cannot be seen as simply a consequence of Trumpism because Trump’s presidency itself is a manifestation of our having thrown open that Overton window long before he announced his candidacy. Instead, Marwick would likely identify the Republican’s rhetorical strategy as tapping into a “deep story,” in which the interests of rural Americans have allegedly been moved to the “back of the line” behind immigrants, refugees, people of color, etc. at the urging of liberal urbanites.

While this particular narrative may be grounded in the fact that, indeed, city-centric politics often do overlook the interests of rural citizens, the crazy, racist, and divisive aspects of this deep story have been reinvigorated and amplified by the diverse range of problematic information fed non-stop via internet platforms. The Illusion of More effect kicks in as consensus builds around repeated themes shared by like-minded people; and no amount of fact-checking, or even platform moderation per se, is going to dislodge misinformation from someone committed to finding evidence for his deep story.

And this folly knows no political loyalty. The “sudden” appearance of QAnon—a collective of conspiracy-minded Trump zealots who coalesced on chat boards like 4Chan—comprises both “right” and “left” identity types, but who share a common belief in a “deep state” conspiracy to which they imagine Trump stands in opposition.  QAnon may be main act in the center ring at the moment, but they are hardly the only clowns in the circus believing and spreading fake news.  In fact, it would be a serious mistake—not to mention an arrogant one—to believe that disinformation is only aimed at, or effective upon, these caricatures. Take for example this statement:

“Morals, values, and identity will always defeat facts, reason, logic, and self-interest.”

If you think that reads like something out of a training manual for cult indoctrination or the Tao of authoritarianism, it actually comes from a slide deck created by Open Media to instruct its activists in the proper way to “frame” issues in support of—get this—digital rights! Think about that for a moment …

The fundamental premise of “digital rights” is that an “open internet” must thoroughly democratize speech and information because more information is inherently good for  democratic society.  But Open Media states that the ideal way to evangelize these principles is to appeal to people’s emotions, because emotion will always defeat reason, thus contradicting the presumed value of information in the first place.

Intent of the Fakers Less Important Than the Effect of the Fakes

“…the networked nature of the internet and the ability to replicate and remix images, text, and video makes it impossible to determine where a particular idea, image, or meme originated, let alone pinpoint the intent of the author. This is particularly true considering the dominance of irony as an expressive and affective force in native internet content.”

To me, this statement by Marwick alludes to one of the most difficult problems in addressing the fake news disease—the often-subtle correlation between the harmlessly entertaining and the poisonously effective.  All those ironic, political memes (and I’ve shared a few) can have the tangible effect of eroding basic reason, even if the meme-maker was just going for laughs. “…messaging is reinforced through repetition; the more people see fake news headlines, the more likely they are to think they are accurate,” writes Marwick. “This is true even if the story is repeated in order to debunk it.”

In the seminal example of my friend sharing fake news in 2011, there was no way of knowing who had cut and paste the original “story” just like there is no way to know whether that political meme you just shared was made by some kid amusing himself or by a Russian hacker paid to make mischief or by some guy taking the wrong medication. But if we are indeed all steadily eroding our capacity for reason and widening the Overton window, Marwick warns that fact-checking is probably not the answer …

“Fact-checking is predicated on the assumption that people will change their mind [sic] when confronted with correct information,” writes Marwick, “which implies a very passive model of the audience … [but] this ignores a wide variety of social and cultural factors, and is not supported by empirical evidence. In fact, fact-checking may have the opposite effect of making stories ‘more sticky.’”

It is true that trying to get someone to reconsider a statement based on evidence alone is like trying to flick that nagging ball of Scotch tape from the end of your fingertips.  The assumption that fact-checking is the antidote to fake news is derivative of the original, mistaken assumption that more information is the only solution to bad information. Marwick’s paper casts considerable doubt on the rhetoric that a society networked by information systems is inherently self-correcting, and it provides a conversation-starter that seeks a holistic approach to understanding why people share so much utter nonsense.

The why is important because it is largely a sociological or psychological inquiry rather than a purely technological—let alone legal—one.  As much as I advocate more platform responsibility in specific contexts, the fake news problem is not one we can blame solely on Facebook et al, or certainly expect these companies to solve for us. To the contrary, if Marwick’s line of inquiry is on the right track, it suggests that the question why is something most of us should constantly be asking ourselves.


Photo by NomadSoul1

© 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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