What You Can Do to Stop the Spread of Fake News
Fake news sometimes goes viral. You can do something to curb it.
Posted Jul 07, 2020
When you learn that what you posted on social media is untrue, you have a responsibility to remove it so other people don’t read it and become influenced by the falsehood. In a world with so many fake news purveyors, it’s understandable if you unknowingly post something that isn’t correct. Doing so just makes you mistaken. However, if you learn what you posted is incorrect, keeping the post available for others to read—knowing it is false—makes you a liar.
If someone posts something on social media that has been unequivocally proven false, they would serve the community much more helpfully if they chose to behave in a socially responsible manner and deleted the deceit. To say it more directly, if you post something on social media while already knowing it is untrue when you post it, you are lying, and you should act responsibly and take it down (or not do that in the first place). But more importantly to my point, if you unknowingly post something on social media that is false, and you are shown that your post is not true, you would do well as a community member to act responsibly and delete it.
(I’d like to address the “making a mistake” issue rather than the former “lying” example in this post. It is beyond the scope of this article to persuade liars not to lie. You were supposed to learn that from your parents and guardians when you were a child.)
The issue in this post is learning to abide by the social contract. I know that nobody actually signs this contract in front of a notary public. Nobody actually swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when they sign up for their Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. However, it seems worthwhile and prosocial for people communicating in a community—online or in-person—to make sure what gets communicated actually has truth behind it. Language is very powerful over human behavior, and to use language inappropriately can be immoral, cause chaos, and lead to suffering. If you know that the language you are using can lead to problematic outcomes, retracting it or eradicating it is the wise thing to do.
According to the Pew Research Center (2018), 55% of adults in the USA get their news from social media either "often" or "sometimes," and this percentage increasing. Our culture is creating a grassroots news network with social media. We share what interests us, or what we think others should know. (Some might argue we post things that get us more dopamine spikes or reinforcing “likes,” but why we post is also beyond the scope of this post.) The problem is that whether we post our interests, what we want other people to know, or things that will get us rewarding consequences, many times the posting isn’t vetted for its veracity. Sometimes a meme or blog gets shared because it is provocative, funny, or signals the virtue of the poster. The problems are that provocative and funny material isn’t always true, and truth doesn’t always take precedence.
From some philosophical and political science viewpoints, truth is crucial to a working society. Perhaps it is because I am a scientist that I think lying is unethical. In science, there are consequences for misrepresentations. And even if you are not a scientist, there are still problematic effects of having your day-to-day actions influenced by things you learn but just aren’t so.
Here’s the practical issue: when you post something you think is cute, provocative, or makes a point that you want to promote—but it is untrue—and someone comments on the posting with a link to a journal article, reliable news source, or a write-up from snopes.com, then you should take it down. Of course, there is room on a thread for debate, and “reliable” news sources get things wrong sometimes. However, I have seen too many times that when someone’s post is definitively proven false, they say something like, “Oh, I didn’t know,” and leave the post up for other people to see! When these other people see the deceptive posting, they may not explore the thread, but instead just believe that snippet to be true (because why would someone knowingly lie to me?), and they go on believing what they read even though the original poster knows it is incorrect. If the said snippet is cute and provocative enough, it gets shared. This is how lies go viral.
One remedy for preventing the spread of viruses is to not let yourself get infected by them and don’t infect others with them if you can prevent it. What we learned about COVID-19 is generalizable to lies: don’t go places where viruses are, and wash your hands regularly. If you know that you have the potential for spreading the virus, use disinfectant, clean yourself up, and quarantine yourself from promoting contagion. This is metaphorically similar to the lying virus: Don’t hang out around liars, and if you do, wash your mind regularly with factual information. If you have the potential for spreading a lie, do the research, clean your postings up, and if you are told you are spreading falsehoods, quarantine the posting in the deleted files on the computer.
I know that I have no authority to tell you what to do with your social media platform, but I’m coming from a point of view as someone who cares about science, society, mental health, and peace, and had this point of view influenced by evidence-based information and training. The point of this blog is not to go into different types of truth, the things in your context that lead you to represent a state of the world that isn’t true, or how lies end up getting formed. I’m simply highlighting the odd situation of our new way of communicating in social media, and how to make it a more prosocial platform. I’m making the case that if you learn what you said isn’t right, stop saying it. And if you learn your social media post is wrong, take it down.
Shearer, E. & Greico, E. (2019). Americans Are Wary of the Role Social Media Sites Play in Delivering the News.Journalism. https://www.journalism.org/2019/10/02/americans-are-wary-of-the-role-social-media-sites-play-in-delivering-the-news/