I have to admit that when I saw this quote on Facebook, I believed it to the point that I almost repeated it. I later learned that People magazine searched their archives and did not locate this quote from Trump in 1998 or any other year. Social media users could not avoid fake stories and quotes filling their News Feeds throughout this tumultuous campaign season. Was this election won or lost on social media?
For years to come, we will talk likely continue to discuss, analyze, and scrutinize the presidential campaign of 2016 for the role of lies and falsehoods propagated not only by the candidates themselves, particularly Donald Trump, but also from an onslaught of political news websites that used Facebook and Twitter to spread fake stories. But more broadly, we will look at this election as the first time social media played such as critical role in transforming an institution. Political conversation and sharing occurred on social media sites like Facebook, which is used by almost half of the U.S. population and where about two-thirds of users are getting news, according to the Pew Research Center. Unfortunately, the fake news on Facebook and other social media sites damaged rather than helped the political process.
The seemingly political websites that flourished during this election were mostly only interested in traffic for the purpose of driving up revenue. In this world of pseudo-journalism, fact checkers, multiple sources, or even the actual truth are not requirements to attract a click to the site. In fact, the more outrageous, ridiculous, and untrue the story, the more effective the click-bait. Facebook and Twitter provide a distribution method that easily puts fake stories in front of almost 2 billion readers. A bit of advertising spending on the platforms helps with more prominence in the feeds. The websites use the power of Google’s AdSense to host advertisements that then generate revenue for site owners. Additionally, the nature of this election–contentious, heated, polarizing–created an appetite for these stories. Distrust of the media may have also contributed to people seeking the “truth.”
These websites offered a host of political and official-sounding names. (A comprehensive list is being compiled by Professor Melissa Zimbars here.) Some have been traced to teens in Macedonia seeking to profit from the American election. Buzzfeed identified more than 100 of these websites from this Greek region with names like WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. But Americans were setting up sites like these as well.
The fake news overwhelming promoted Trump over Clinton. Why wasn’t fake news reporting more fair and balanced? Shouldn’t we have seen fake stories that helped Clinton and well as those that helped Trump? It was the Trump stories that got the clicks and drove the spread of even more Trump stories. Fake news worked because of Trump. He was both anti-establishment and a celebrity. He also provided his own lies for posting and retweeting.
What were some of the most popular fake stories? How about a tweet by Trump that Facebook, Twitter, and Google were burying news of an FBI investigation of Clinton? This narrative fit nicely with the Clinton’s email problems but no proof of a cover-up was ever reported by a reputable news organization.
Other popular fake stories included one posted on a fake ABC News site (ABC.com.co) that reported a man was paid $3500 by the Clinton campaign to protest at a Trump rally (which was retweeted by Eric Trump, Ann Coulter, and Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski), a tweet from a fake CNN account reporting showing a significant lead for Trump in Florida on election day just after polls opened, a Denver Guardian story about how an FBI investigator into the Clinton email scandal was found dead (the Denver Guardian is neither a real news source nor Denver’s “oldest news source”), a Christian Times Newspaper story that reported 10,000+ sealed ballots with Clinton’s name selected were being stored in ballot boxes in an Ohio warehouse (Christian Times newspaper is a legitimate source, but is not affiliated with the website that appropriated its name), and a story from the Macedonian site ConservativeState.com that proclaimed that Hillary Clinton said in 2013, “I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought,” which racked up almost 500,000 likes, shares, and comments.
Other false claims from Macedonian sites included that the Pope endorsed Trump (he didn’t) and that Mike Pence said Michelle Obama is “most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had” (she isn’t, in my opinion), which combined with two other fake posts reviewed by Buzzfeed received more than one million likes, shares, and comments. (Note: none of these links go to the original sources, but rather to stories about the sources to prevent them from receiving additional ad revenue.)
Back in early 2015, Facebook seemed to be acknowledging and addressing the fake news problem. The company even added a mechanism for reporting a story as “purposefully fake or deceitful news.” When a story received a certain number of flags, it would receive “reduced distribution in the News Feed,” according to the company. At that time, the company also indicated that satire would not be impacted. Today, however, the flagging mechanism for fake news stories is gone. Now, when users report a post, they indicate whether it is “annoying or not interesting,” “shouldn’t be on Facebook,” or “spam.” None of these options send the message that the story is fake.
Facebook had already been called out by a former Facebook curator for suppressing conservative stories in the “Trending Topics” section. Even when trending organically, stories about Rand Paul, Mitt Romney, and other conservative issues were excluded from the list by workers (although there is no evidence that this suppression came from a corporate mandate). Conversely, when Facebook users were not reading stories deemed important by management from ten specified news sites, other former curators described how they were instructed by management to place these stories in Trending Topics to gain some traction. Facebook is a gatekeeper for news and despite their assertions that it’s a data company, it’s definitely acting like a media company.
After this exposé, Facebook fired the curating team and replaced them with engineers who would manage an algorithm to determine Trending Topics. Three days later, Megyn Kelly’s name was trending and hovering over the name revealed the fake news story with the headline: “Breaking: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary.”
Other Facebook criticisms include the creation of an echo chamber, or filter bubble, whereby people become increasingly surrounded by stories that support their point of view. A study by Facebook, however, found that the Facebook algorithm suppresses opposing opinions only 8 percent of the time for liberals and 5 percent for conservatives. However, only 9 percent of Facebook users identify as either liberal or conservative, leaving out a large percentage of users.
What can social media users do? We don’t always have time to fact check stories and may find the task challenging, particularly when fact checking sometimes leads to other sources that confirm that false story (because these sites often not only lie but also plagiarize). Users should be wary of clicking, commenting, or reacting to stories that seem preposterous and instead rely on reputable news organizations (and not social media) for the majority of their news consumption. Sites like Facebook may not be able to keep up with the onslaught of stories and not be willing to expend the time and resources to check. Furthermore, in the time it takes to fact-check, a story can spread like wildfire and the damage is already done. Facebook, however, could easily lessen the prominence of stories in the News Feed that do not come from reputable news organizations.