How fake news became more important than the real thing

By in Opinions

Beating all odds, made-up news stories and their creators turned out to be the real winners in the 2016 American presidential election. While this is most definitely a reason to facepalm, it sheds light on the important conversation of how fucking gullible we are.

In the weeks following Nov. 8, 2016, you probably heard about the unprecedented role fake news stories had in influencing the public throughout the election. Fictitious stories targeting Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and others spread across social media — most notably Facebook — like wildfire.

This was thanks to both Facebook’s self-proclaimed commitment to neutrality and their inability to properly vet articles for accuracy and weed out fake news, due to switching over to computer editors in August 2016.

Being the Sheaf’s creator and purveyor of our fake news section myself, I was intrigued to hear all this. I was not pleased to hear it, however, but rather kind of unnamed-1infuriated. Had people really become this foolish?

Despite Facebook CEO and Jesse-Eisenberg-wannabe Mark Zuckerberg saying there was no way his website influenced the election, a May 26, 2016 report from the Pew Research Center found that 66 per cent of people on Facebook in the United States are getting their news there. Compared to other social media sites and apps, Facebook also dominates as far as being the news outlet of choice for the public.

Misreading something that was written to be funny is understandable to an extent. Satirical fake news publications like the Onion and the Beaverton have long entertained while simultaneously exposing the public’s gullibility along the way. It isn’t this fake news that makes the real waves though.

Far fetched, unfunny, scandalous articles written for the sole purpose of fooling people were the real offenders in the election. Written disproportionately by Macedonian teenagers eager to make money off of people sharing their posts, fake articles about Clinton’s FBI investigators being found dead or Pope Francis endorsing Trump were shared heavily, with those behind the lies reaping all the benefits.

Making matters worse, in March 2014, The Washington Post reported that approximately 60 per cent of Americans get their news strictly from headlines, and a June 2016 study from Columbia University found that 59 per cent of links shared online haven’t even been read. Personally, I can’t help but assume that had a candidate been shot at a rally, I might also hear about it somewhere other than a single Facebook article that I didn’t even read.

Yet, that’s what happens. People still choose — in an age when no one should be so gullible as to blindly trust what they read on Facebook — to do just that, and Facebook is complicit in it.

By personalizing the ads and posts you see in your newsfeed to reflect the things that you post, share and like, Facebook essentially insulates its users with their own values and opinions. Likewise, the trending topics that appear on your Facebook account are the result of an algorithm that tries to reflect your interests.

Facebook closes you into a bubble where you’re segregated from the views of those you don’t agree with. It’s with the convergence of all these awful elements that the culture of fake news festers.

In this age of bullshit being sent all across the Internet, people are in a position where truth doesn’t matter. Oxford Dictionaries declared the 2016 word of the year to be “post-truth,” an adjective, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

This is all pretty sad. It doesn’t even matter what’s true and what’s wrong, as long as it’s garnering attention.

There’s still hope, however. Disgruntled Facebook employees are mutinying against their employer to make Facebook more ethical and to stop the spread of harmful content. The unofficial task force seeks to blow the whistle on problems they feel Facebook isn’t taking seriously enough, like the effects of fake news and personalized newsfeeds.

While fake news has been proven to be very powerful on Facebook, hopefully, the era of post-post-truth lies ahead.

Zach Tennent / Opinions Editor

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor