Every morning I wake up and aimlessly scroll through my phone. I usually begin by checking my texts, then move to my email, then Instagram, then Facebook. Through many of these platforms, I get a small dose of news — headlines on Instagram, articles posted on Facebook, The New York Times Morning Briefing email. I eventually get to refreshing Twitter until I can no longer make excuses for staying in bed. On Twitter, I am greeted by my humbling 100 followers, along with angry neoliberal feminists, stubborn conservative fraternity boys, my favorite celebrities (Lil Nas X, The Ghost of Karl Marx), beautiful girls with a dry sense of humor and, of course, Donald Trump.
COVID-19 has prolonged my lazy mornings and, in turn, exponentially increased my screen time. I was bombarded with anything and everything Coronavirus related at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, my news feed is covered by the Black Lives Matter Movement, with Instagram graphics explaining ways to get involved, email petitions to defund the police. As people fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, they are simultaneously fighting the pandemic of racism that has been taking lives for far longer. However, it seems as though there is yet another virus that is threatening the potential for an equitable world: misinformation. Fake news is contaminating the internet, and efforts to vaccinate against it, such as education and filtering technology, are seemingly ineffective.
The spread of false or misleading information is incredibly dangerous. In a world where 59 percent of the population has access to the internet, what exists and spreads online holds a large amount of power. Moreover, what appears online influences people’s opinions, and in turn, important world events such as elections or social movements.
In between photographs, videos, and bits of news are eerily specific and relevant advertisements. Often, these ads connect to the most recent conversation I’ve had or an item I’ve browsed for online — running sneakers with extra foot support, calming facial oil for extra dry skin, CBD oil that makes your butt rounder (message received), or Janos Marton for District Attorney (a Democrat who focuses on criminal justice, similar to the campaign I am currently working on). It is clear that my advertisements are targeted.
Just like COVID-19 and racism, fake news is not taking its victims at random, but rather infecting those who prove to be the most vulnerable. A group of network theorists ran computer tests to assess how fake news spreads throughout social networks. They found that one of the leading causes for fake news was the precision with which the advertiser targeted an audience. Big technology companies such as Facebook and Apple assist in this process by constantly gathering data and selling it to advertisers. The more poorly informed a group of people was, the more likely it was for them to believe, and proceed to spread, the information. In other words, the decision of where to spark the flame and ‘set the fire’ of fake news is unequivocally calculated to intense detail.
Targeted advertisements and algorithms that create tailored social media feeds are some of the largest threats to American Democracy as it stands, particularly in an increasingly digitized world. Ultimately, they feed the proliferation of fake news and clickbait. They are the fuel for the digital economy and have fuelled “surveillance capitalism, to make matters worse. ” Surveillance capitalism, as per American author Shoshana Zuboff, is the idea that capitalistic motives have evolved into the digital world. Big technology platforms are using surveillance as capital, or in other words, they are profiting off of people's personal information.
According to Zuboff, this surveillance of internet users began in 2001 when Google was experiencing a lot of pressure from investors, and in turn decided to boost ad revenue. They used data logs, along with analytical power to compute which ads were most relevant. Google then went further to develop new methods of collecting surplus data, even when users had opted to keep that information private. This surplus data is what eventually gave way to the “prediction market” — also known as targeted ads.
Surplus data is used for more than just advertisements. The same principle applies to anything that may appear in somebody’s feed. The ease with which a party can make up and spread false information has become a disturbingly large, powerful, and profitable marketplace. With this makeup, misinformation and falsehoods have become routine. Capitalism persists, and companies prioritize their profits over the promotion of democracy and truth.
One might also consider the issue of free speech. Many companies are hesitant to restrict what exists on their websites at the risk of violating people’s first amendment rights. The ironic thing is that while fake news is to some extent protected by the first amendment, it simultaneously undermines one of its main purposes. The first amendment seeks to promote the “free exchange of ideas in public debate, which shapes public opinion and informs democratic self-governance.” While allowing people to express themselves online promotes free speech, misinformation hinders democracy and by no means is productive in its shaping of public opinion.
So, is there a solution to counteract fake news?
Perhaps social media companies can stop advertisers from targeting users on the basis of political views and browsing history. They could block all targeted ads during election season and spread constant reminders that fake news is in fact, all over the place. The algorithms used to target the most vulnerable people by spreading fake news could be used by counter-fake-news proponents to educate that population. They could provide them with links and a more well-rounded picture of the information out there (just as The Fairness Doctrine sought to do in 1949). Although, some might argue that targeting specific groups with information to counteract fake news is an overstep. Ideally, it would be stopped at its source.
Education might be the most feasible immunization to the misinformation virus at the moment.
The world’s dependence on the news media, and the news media’s dependence on social media, sensationalism, and clickbait, are the perfect recipe for the success of fake news. It can spread in many ways, such as when internet subcultures abuse the current media ecosystem to manipulate news frames and spread ideas. Far-right and far-left groups alike attempt to control what appears on the web by embracing an “any news is good news” mindset. They recognize that any comment or share helps get their word out, regardless of the intent of the person behind it.
As time goes on, more and more information is being disseminated on the internet, making it increasingly difficult to navigate.
President Donald Trump is one of the most influential and prominent sources of misinformation in the world, yet he is rarely held accountable for what he says. Twitter has previously been under considerable scrutiny for not suspending the President’s account. Twitter recently said if a political leader or celebrity has a clear “public interest value,” then their tweets are contributing to the mission of the platform — part of which is for people to engage with their leaders directly.
If an orange man who tweets this…
… is not being silenced, it is clear that there is work to be done in regards to the regulation of targeted and false information. A primary concern for Twitter might be a potential alienation of the president and his power, and possibly some of its users for preventing free speech. Although content by figures like the president are not always taken down, Twitter has taken measures to provide context for certain tweets that may be threatening or misleading in their message. Now Twitter will flag and mark any tweet that might stand against its mission with a warning. CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey also decided that it would be best for the platform to stop accepting political advertisements.
I consider myself to be relatively enlightened to the perils of fake news. Yet, I continue to lie in my bed, entranced by the light emitted from my screen, consuming whatever the media presents to me. I have spent a considerably large amount of time thinking about the ubiquitous existence of fake news, its distortion of democracy and the ways to avoid it. I have taken steps to hold myself more accountable, such as fact-checking information before I post it, and subscribing to non biased, high quality news sources, such as The Syllabus. But a lot of what I see and internalize is largely out of my control. What is most important is that people begin to be more naturally cognizant of the potential biases and falsehoods in front of them. Misinformation spreads like wildfire –– it is incredibly easy to see an Instagram story and repost it without briefly fact checking it, and it is easy to believe what seemingly notable publications write. I have realized that I should be taking more time to consider where the information I ingest is coming from, and what context I am reading it in. Also, I should probably get the hell out of bed.