“What happens is a completely fake idea suddenly becomes the reality for a lot of people,” BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman said Monday night to 150 students, faculty and alumni at the University of Chicago.
Silverman has studied misinformation and fake news for years, recently concluding a fellowship at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He writes articles for BuzzFeed that bring attention to fake news websites and the spread of misinformation.
“The world of misinformation isn’t just fake news,” Silverman said Monday. “My definition of fake news has three criteria: it has to be 100-percent false – not a news article or partisan site that gets a few facts wrong; it has to be created consciously to be false; and there has to be an economic motive.”
But for the general public, Silverman has found that nuance surrounding misinformation is often difficult to comprehend.
For example, individuals often unintentionally spread or post misinformation on social media platforms. Silverman highlighted a case in which a man posted on Facebook a photograph of the Statue of Liberty under a tornado-like wind during Hurricane Sandy.
The only problem? The image was not an original – it was faked using photo-editing software. And while he may have had no intention to propel misinformation, the man’s decision to share the image lead to 200,000 shares on Facebook. In other words, a lot of people saw it.
“Hoaxters and the people creating this stuff want to pull you, and they want to get you to help it spread,” Silverman said. “This is a role for all of us to really think about, the role we each play in passing along information and realizing that each little share, each little ‘like’ helps propel that stuff even further.”
Capitalizing on Misinformation, Fake News
On the other hand, Silverman says there are organizations, groups and individuals who purposely create and disseminate misinformation for political gain, using content that evokes emotional responses and confirms beliefs.
“The sad truth of it is that the stuff that was outright false or a mixture of true and false tends to get more engagement,” Silverman said. “The more you play to people's beliefs and emotions, the more traffic and engagement you get.”
The Pew Research Center recently released a study last week that found 35 percent of media consumers use social media as a pathway to a news website – the figure jumps to 47 percent among 18-to-24-year-olds. While the volume of fake news on social media platforms was not the decisive factor in the election, it had other consequences that remain prevalent today, Silverman said.
“It contributed to polarization … not just in who people decided to vote for, but their perceptions of the other party, and also their perceptions of just people on the other side,” Silverman said.
The sheer reach that Facebook as well as Google have has lead Silverman to report on the organizations as he “would cover the government because they’re just as powerful in many ways.” Their business models, he said, reward individuals for posts that produce the most engagement. This has, he believes, served as the sole incentive for individuals peddling out fake news.
“It’s not created by people who have a political agenda, it was by people who wanted to make money,” Silverman said.
But organizations are working to curb these trends.
Combatting Fake News
Facebook recently partnered with third-party fact-checkers to flag fake news, and Google is working to knock illegitimate publishers out of Ad Sense who have the power to reach wide audiences. However, there are no concrete steps being taken to address polarization. Facebook's algorithm targets content to its users based on what they have engaged with in the past, culminating in conversations on feeds that are either hyper-emotional or pertain to people of like-minded beliefs.
“The more we're surrounded by the people who have the same beliefs as us, the more extreme our beliefs can get,” Silverman said. “So, arguably, the algorithms are creating this effect on a greater scale.”
That hit home for Siddharth Sachdeva, a third year University of Chicago student attending Monday night's lecture. Sachdeva is working with two other students to create an algorithm that, when downloaded, would insert the views of individuals from the other side of the political aisle into feeds. Sachdeva's team is submitting the idea into a competition later this year, and hopes to use technology to build bridges between people.
Media consumers also play a pivotal role in tackling the spread of misinformation and fake news.
“None of us purely rationally consume information,” Silverman explained. “It’s all processed through existing beliefs and knowledge, and just being aware of that is one of the best things we can do today.”
Nov. 21: The pope endorses Donald Trump. Michelle Obama unfollows Hillary Clinton on Twitter. These days fake news is making real news. Could you be spreading lies on your Facebook feed?
Nov. 17: Worried that politics might spoil your Thanksgiving meal? Two local psychologists serve up recipes for a peaceful post-election family gathering.
Oct. 18: How difficult is large-scale voter fraud, and how are Illinois officials assuring the integrity of the upcoming election?