Fake News is Us
Forgotten in the discussion about the responsibility of social platforms to police fake news, is that as news and information consumers we do ourselves no favors. We ourselves are midwives of phoney content—in the rush to be first to share a prurient or partisan headline, outrageous video or shocking image.
A Pew Research study released this week found that at least one in four US adults admit (which means the proportion is higher) to having shared what turned out to be a contrived political news story.
Which means that if the study had looked at what proportion of all social shares of stories in people's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat timelines and feeds were pure invention, the number of the guilty would likely again be higher.
Why we share fabricated news has to be thought of in the context of why we share at all. A couple of years ago the New York Times Consumer Insights group took a look at the psychology behind shareable content. It diagnosed five core reasons, key among them "to be useful to others":
Even though social media does have a tendency of having people focus on themselves, the primary reason that people share things on their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds, research shows, is to be useful to others.
But wanting to be "useful" by informing, exciting or charming friends—itself a potential breeding ground for falsity—should be weighed against the second reason for sharing—"to define ourselves to others".
I hope I don't appear to be passing moral judgement if I say the latter isn't always driven by truth or fact so much as by conscious or unconscious personal brand shaping. Which can lead to a number of extirpative behaviors including injudicious or thoughtless diffusion of images, news and videos . . . or way too many selfies.
According to the Pew study people do believe they have an obligation—on par more or less with government, politicians, social networking sites and search engines—to stop spreading fake news.
Frankly, though, this probably understates our personal contribution to the problem, and how answerable each of us needs to be individually to police our own sharing actions . . . while unrelentingly exposing the latest trash from the far right, racists and white supremacists.