Fool me once: Clickbait, fake news deceives voters during election

William Gehrung, Reporter, Puma Press

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This past weekend, President-elect Donald Trump “was seen boarding one of his planes with former clansman and prominent white nationalist, David Duke,” The End of Times reported. Allegedly, sources inside the flight-crew said that Duke and Trump were discussing a “possible cabinet appointment” for Duke and other “loyalists,” as well as “internment camps” for Muslim refugees, mass deportations and reinstituting racially segregated public schools through executive action.

In other news, The National Fabricator reported that Hillary Clinton was currently under investigation for supposedly conspiring to hire a hitman to “take out” FBI Director James Comey following her failed presidential bid. The former Secretary of State was overheard by campaign staff members in her hotel room “talking numbers” and referring to Comey as “the idiot who cost [her] the election.”

Fortunately for us, none of the above is true. Not a single letter of it. These are examples of “fake news” that I made up. Shame on me. But if you believed a smidgeon of it, or even hesitated for a moment, that’s all it takes to plant an idea, an opinion or a rumor with the potential to go viral. That’s how simple it is. All one needs to do is spin an incendiary yarn, give it a flashy, click-baiting title, “post” it on social media under the guise of authentic journalism and let the internet do the rest. Drop some names, places, and dates for good measure and standby for launch.

According to a study performed by the Pew Research Institute in October 2016, 62 percent of people get news from social media. As it pertains to this year’s presidential election, some are saying the persuasive power of fake news on social media was partly responsible for the outcome, accusing Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg of not doing enough to combat it. These criticisms prompted Zuckerberg to post a public statement via Facebook on Nov. 12, in which he stated:

“…These are very important questions and I care deeply about getting them right. I want to do my best to explain what we know here.

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 percent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other…”

However, not everybody was satisfied with his response and recent changes in Facebook policy have validated the concern that some things were undeniably in need of fixing. Call it tacit admission of guilt, if you will.

The NY Times recently reported in an article titled “Google and Facebook Take Aim at Fake News Sites” that although wary of initially accepting the responsibility of Facebook’s role in this ethical debacle, the networking site had since taken the necessary measures of prevention by “[updating] the language in its Facebook Audience Network policy,” stating that it “will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites.” In addition, the article reports that Google will also be taking steps to “attack the sources of revenue” of fake news sites by not allowing them to host and make money from advertisements. The article goes on:

“Taken together, the decisions were a clear signal that the tech behemoths could no longer ignore the growing outcry over their power in distributing information to the American electorate.”

In order to save some face, Google claimed that some of these policy changes were already in the making and “not in reaction to the election.” Nonetheless, this may be an appropriate time to confess they’re a day late and a dollar short. Ultimately, this strategy of removing the incentive to create fake news seems dubious at best, given the variety of motivations and clever ways for spreading misinformation on the Internet.

CNN recently published the article “5 Stunning Fake News Stories that Reached Millions,” reporting that stories full of completely fabricated and extremely controversial content were disseminated with ease to newsfeeds all across the country. By the time they were discovered to be hoaxes, the stories had already been shared hundreds of thousands of times. Some fake news sites even “copied” the format of genuine news publications, such as the NY Times, in font and style to feign authenticity.

From accusations of Sheriff David A. Clarke – a prominent Fox News contributor – being a member of the KKK (he’s African American) to the discovery of a “warehouse full” of pre-cast “fraudulent ballots” for Clinton, the content posted on fake news sites and the sheer audacity of their methods knew no bounds during this year’s election.

According to research done by BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, phony news even surpassed legitimate stories, in terms of “engagement” on Facebook (viewing and sharing content) during the last few months of the election cycle.

With all of this in mind, after all of the research and recent changes to Internet tech-policy, is it safe to assume that fake news didn’t play a role in national discourse over the last year?

Many political analysts, journalists and avid social media users would consider that idea to be absolutely asinine. If you believed that the Pope endorsed Trump for president or that Clinton was doomed for indictment as soon as the investigation into her private email server was re-opened, you were duped by fake news and, chances are, shared those stories on your newsfeed. Maybe – just maybe – we should stop pointing fingers at Facebook and Google and take some of the blame for our own inability to recognize it.

Why do we fall for it? Essentially, we’re less likely to realize we’re being lied to when we read things that agree with our views. If we root ourselves firmly within our echo chambers and refuse to question the information being fed to us, we’re primed and ready for fooling. In an Article for The Daily Beast, the author behind many of the fake news stories that went viral, Marco Chacon, came clean on his contribution and why it was so easy to sucker the masses. He says,

“When the only news you are willing to believe is partisan news, you are susceptible to stories written “in your language” that are complete, obvious, utter fabrications.”

One thing is certain: If we don’t hone our fact-checking abilities and eye for the faux by 2020, or practice more open-mindedness, Kanye West may very well have a chance at Commander in Chief, and if so, shame on us.

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Fool me once: Clickbait, fake news deceives voters during election