A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published an article called “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” The article described the journey of a tweet, which alleged that the anti-Trump protesters in Austin, T.X. had been paid to participate in the protests and were brought in on large buses in mass numbers (the tweet included a picture of said buses). Within a couple of hours, the tweet was picked up by the pro-Trump subreddit, “the_donald,” after which the story spread as far and wide as FOX News, Free Republic, and Donald Trump’s own Twitter page. The story, as you may have guessed, was false. The man who composed the tweet, Eric Tucker, came to the conclusion that the protesters were hired purely from seeing some large buses parked near the location where the protests were taking place. Still, he could have never expected his conclusion to go viral––he had only 40 Twitter followers at the time.
For many people, one of the main takeaways from this election has been a better understanding of what motivates people in their decisions and thought processes: it is emotions, rather than rationality or logic. Tucker’s conclusion could have been easily dismantled after applying just the slightest bit of scrutiny—and, in fact, it was. The tweet was fact-checked, and subsequently debunked, by many sources, including Tucker himself. Yet hardly anybody wanted to hear the truth. Tucker’s first tweet got over 16,000 retweets, whereas his subsequent debunking tweet got only 64.
The popular phrase that “people hear what they want to hear” is no longer a phrase without meaning—it is our reality. Since the fateful day of Nov. 8, almost all liberal news outlets have circulated numerous stories about the consequences of fake news on the election. The common narrative is that Facebook’s lack of fact-checking methods allowed thousands of articles containing false information to show up on people’s newsfeeds, subsequently swaying their vote.
On the one hand, it seems unfair to blame Facebook. Its main purpose, at least if we’re going by the books, is to connect people; it is, after all, a social network. However, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from various forms of social media; 44 percent of U.S. adults get their news specifically from Facebook. Thus, while Facebook may not present itself as a news source, it has, for better or for worse, taken on that role for a large percentage of people.
Since the post-election backlash, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has promised to look into ways of fact-checking the website’s content and preventing the spread of fake news. I urge you to stop the thoughts from drifting; grab hold of them tightly and pull them back to you, because fake news, also known as lies, isn’t over.
Before the election I operated under the assumption that the majority of people in this country cared about rationality, logic, and truth. We now know this assumption is wrong. So much behavior is driven by emotions, and you can’t be completely sure of whether emotions have stood in the way of the truth unless you check. In the world of academia that we are lucky to inhabit, truth is almost a given. We do not routinely fact-check our textbooks or what our professors have said in class because we have enough trust in their honesty and rationality to believe them. I hope that this election has done enough to make you question your trust in the news.