In the book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On (2013), the author Jonah Berger provides an analysis of how information spreads, and why certain information is disseminated or shared more frequently by individuals (p. 21). Throughout the book, Berger provides clear insights and examples as to why some information gains public attention and what separates or enhances this information from other forms of advertising.
One of Berger’s (2013) most telling stories is how we as individuals will share and promote information if we feel the information will be helpful to others (p. 176). Berger cites the example of a 1998 paper in a medical journal which suggested “that immunization against measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism in children” (p. 176). This story turned out to be incorrect as the original author falsified information; however, the paper was still widely shared on social media platforms, as people likely did not see a posted retraction (p. 176). The significance of this is that it outlines the need we all have to share and promote information, without first examining if the story could be false or misleading. Secondly, it points out a flaw in how content is ranked on the web, since the retraction was not promoted or shared, it is unlikely that people even saw it in their feed or on the web.
With informaiton being so easily shared an argument could be made that social media companies and internet search companies such as Bing and Google should have de-listed the original article or displayed warnings, stating that this article has been retracted or proven false. If this occurred, users may have noticed the retraction and stopped sharing the original paper.
The question really becomes, is it the responsibiity of these companies to police and monitor their content?
Today it is becoming increasing difficult to discern fake news from real news. For example, according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students, 82% of middle-school children couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled sponsored content and a real news story on a website (Shellenbarger, 2016, para. 2). When it comes down to it, any type of news has a certain purpose: inform/educate, sell, persuade, or entertain. Sometimes these purposes get crossed, which is when it becomes more difficult to discern the truth.
Recently, after Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States on November 8, 2016, the issue of fake news gained significant prominence in the media. Facebook also recently implemented a disputed tag, which now shows up under articles that users believe may be fake or misleading. Once stories are flagged they will be reviewed by a third-party organization, such as Politifact or Snopes.com (Morris, 2017, para. 2). Google has also implemented a tagging system to identity potential inaccuracies in bigger news stories (Pedwell, 2017, para. 8).
Given the rise and use of social media as a tool to aggregate and filter news, it is important to delve deeper into how and why fake information is being purposefully propagated or unintentionally forwarded. Oeldorf-Hirsch and Sundar (2015) discovered:
The majority (75%) of online news consumers have content from news websites shared with them through email or [social media sites] SNSs, and nearly half of social media users now receive content from news websites on a daily basis from people they follow on Facebook. (p. 240)
According to Berger (2013), receiving information through social media, may make us think this information is more credible as it is coming from our friends and colleagues, which makes us as individuals more likely to listen and the trust the information being conveyed (p. 8). In addition, the more remarkable or provoking the story, the more likely it will be shared or reposted (p. 39).
Another potential factor for why people share fake news stories could be due to the anonymity or the lack of authority we feel when we are online. Aleks Krotoski (2016) describes this as the “Online Disinhibition Effect” (p. 109). Being online may also make people feel as though their actions will not have consequences in the real world (Krotoski, 2016, p. 133). This concept is often seen when individuals create an “online personality” for themselves and believe that whatever is said online will remain anonymous, which is not the case – especially since now everything you write online is also considered published.
Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter make sharing content as simple as posting an update. This ease of sharing has allowed users of social media “to become ‘‘producers:’’ neither simply users nor producers of news content, but a hybrid role in which they can share what is created by another source as their own” (Oeldorf-Hirsch & Sundar, 2015, p. 241). This gives the user who shares the information, social currency, and makes the individual appear knowledgeable, which in turn secures positive reinforcement from their family and friends (Berger, 2013, p. 36).
Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: Why things catch on (1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.). New
York: Simon & Schuster.
Krotoski, A. (2013). Untangling the web: What the internet is doing to you. London, U.K.: Faber
and Faber Ltd.
Morris, David. (2017). Facebook ‘Disputed News’ Tag Goes Live. Retrieved from Fortune:
Oeldorf-Hirsch, A., & Sundar, S. (2015). Posting, commenting, and tagging: Effects of sharing
news stories on Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 44, 240-249.
Pedwell, D. (2017). Google, Facebook to roll out tools to combat fake news in Canada. Retrieved
from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/google-
Shellenbarger, S. (2016). Most students don’t know when news is fake: Stanford study
finds. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: https://www.wsj.com/articles/most-