IN the aftermath of the recent United States presidential elections, pundits have levied criticism against the role of social media in the proliferation of misinformation and propaganda that may have swayed the outcome in favor of President-elect Donald Trump.
Social Media and the Elections
Media analysts point to the impact of social media in shaping voter’s minds. 66 percent of users get their news from Facebook. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has tried to downplay Facebook’s impact on the spread of misinformation. In his post, Zuckerberg claims that 99 percent of the information on Facebook is authentic.
While this may be debated, Trump has definitely considered online advertising as one of the key channels in his campaign – he significantly put in more resources than his rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent. The result possibly underscores the potential of digital-first strategies in today’s information landscape.
Trump’s win is considered an upset and shocked many from all over the world who kept a close eye on the elections. The Democratic party nominee Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but by virtue of the electoral college system, Trump secured the presidency. His win even prompted demonstrations across the U.S. with thousands of protesters taking to the streets to express their disagreement, chanting “Not my president”.
Not Just the U.S.
Fake news and politics is not exclusively an American issue. It is a global issue.
Fake news about the fake news on fake news.
— Mike Coutermarsh (@mscccc) November 17, 2016
A similar thing happened in the Philippines earlier this year, wherein the underdog candidate tapped social media and won the elections. President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign relied heavily on social media networks for reach.
Even months after a similarly divisive election, the Philippines continues to find itself dealing with the proliferation of misinformation and fake news sites that are either in support of and against the current administration. Paid trolls and fake accounts are used to advance or criticize political agenda, such as the government’s controversial war on drugs.
Penalizing Fake News Websites
Google also found itself criticized after their top search result for the keywords “final election numbers” gave the wrong figures.
As a reaction, the company also made moves to help curb fake news from spreading by penalizing websites that “misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content, or the primary purpose,” by restricting ads to be displayed from its Google AdSense program. AdSense allows website owners to earn by displaying Google ads on web pages.
Facebook also followed suit, by banning fake news sites from using Audience Network. Facebook supposedly had a way to take fake news off people’s News Feeds. However, the tool also had an impact on right-wing news website. Fearing backlash, Facebook allegedly decided not to apply the update.
Getting Rid of Fake News
In light of this clamor for truth, four Princeton students created a Chrome browser extension that checks news feeds for news’ authenticity during a 36-hour hackathon. The project is named “FiB” and can be accessed through GitHub.
They named their project "FiB: Stop living a lie." https://t.co/XsEwkYC82Z
— The Under18 (@TheUnder18Co) November 16, 2016
The extension uses artificial intelligence to check each post based on the website’s reputation and attempts to verify the content against web searches with high confidence. Posts are then labeled with a tag to indicate whether the story is verified or not.
This effort offers a promising start in the campaign against misinformation, but it is still a limited one. Installing and using such browser extensions are primarily user-driven. Proactive users who would want to clean up their news feeds will do so, but this leaves the rest exposed to whatever Facebook or Twitter decides to show on their users’ feeds.
Real Solutions Needed
Social media networks definitely have a major impact in how information spreads. It is critical for these major players to own up to their accountability in shaping public discourse and find ways to ensure that people know the truth. The continued spread of lies can have dire consequences. It is a tough challenge since measures should not trump freedom of expression.