In the current political climate, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify sources of viral information to check the facts. There are publications for every point of view, and the sources of information are overabundant particularly when it comes to popular political talking points. There has been an increasingly rapid trend of Americans relying on social media outlets as a primary news outlet. According to a study by Stanford University (2016), an estimated 29% of American adults rely on social media as their primary source of news. The researchers estimated that fake news on social media during the election cycle totaled at least 38 million posts. This presents two potentially catastrophic problems for anyone attempting to become informed on important political issues: the first is that false claims spread faster on social media because of the sheer volume of information transfer through memes, tweets, and Facebook posts. The second is that it becomes incredibly difficult to find the source of claims so that fact checking can stop the spread of the misinformation wildfire.
To make things even more confusing, fake news is being perpetuated by automated programs pervading every popular social media outlet. According to a Pew Survey (2016) an estimated 64% of US adults say that fake news caused confusion about basic facts regarding current events. Even more troubling, the survey estimated that 23% of US adults shared a fake news story during the election cycle. At first glance this trend toward memes and tweets are a primary news source seems somewhat puzzling, because several watchdogs have been warning the public about the inaccuracy of social media news for years. PolitiFact reported as early as 2014 that 47 percent of shareable Facebook memes were based on false claims. So why are more people relying on social media rather than traditional news outlets to become informed?
Perhaps it is information overload. In today’s world, there are so many conflicting “news” stories that it is almost impossible to individually fact check every single controversial issue, let alone a few. News is spreading faster than people can check the sources, and much of it does not even refer to valid sources. Everywhere you go, there are aggressively satirical memes and tweets limited to one image and 140 characters, perpetuating divisive talking points from party mascots. The sheer volume of content is overwhelming and intimidating to even the most resilient reader.
Some see memes as parallels to political cartoons, and there is some validity to that. After all, memes and twitter commentary can be an accessible participation point for many young Americans, and news outlets must adapt to the public’s preferred channel of consumption as they shifted from print to digital. However, it is important to remember that political cartoons often supplemented an article that extrapolated on the underlying ideology behind the illustrations in far more than 140 characters. I hardly think that people just flipped through political cartoon collections to become informed about issues. Even more unlikely is that people saw sensationally satirical political cartoons and believed them to be factual evidence.
Despite the dangers of these forms of “news,” I want to be clear: I am certainly not against political satire or the use of social media channels for news consumption. Just as much as Twitter has become a breeding ground for misguided one-liners in divisive political discussions, it has also served to spur social movements and give people voices to express their thoughts and creativity. Just as much as Facebook has devolved open-minded, inclusive discussion into meme wars, it has also served to organize protests, share deep introspection, and connect people from around the world. Technology is moving forward, and that can be great for everyone involved as long as we move forward with it.
Although it is harder than ever for millennials to navigate the maze of conflicting information, there are clear ways we can adapt. The first step is to hold these social media outlets and news publications accountable. After the public expressed their disdain over the issue of fake news, Facebook and Google have both announced that they will restrict ad revenue from any identified fake news website and increase security measures. The second step is to be skeptical rather than give in to the cynicism prominent in divisive political debates. This means looking for sources behind information, comparing the article’s publish date to the date of the sources, checking the history of the author’s previous work, and most importantly taking anything without listed sources with a huge grain of salt. Admittedly, this is a lot of work for college students and young professionals who are already bombarded with deadlines, social pressures, and rigorous work schedules. We must remember that we are not so far away from becoming the life-blood of the American society that drives our economy, and we certainly cannot hope to do so without reliable information driving our decisions.