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The Threat of Fake News to Our Democracy

The Pope endorsed Trump? Heck, no. Why do such stories gain traction?

Did Pope Francis endorse Donald Trump? Did Hillary Clinton run a child sex ring out of a pizzeria?  Heck no. And yet, millions share such stories on social media, and many believe them. Why? The proliferation of fake news. What’s fake news?  Stories that are presented in such a way that they appear to be legitimate “headlines” but are totally made up by groups trying to sell a point of view without citations or supporting evidence. And people of any age can be fooled by fake news, even friends of mine. In a 2016 Stanford study, middle school, high school and college students in 12 states were asked to evaluate the information presented in tweets, comments and articles. The researchers had hoped that the students would be able to tell fake accounts from real ones, ads from articles, and activist groups from neutral sources. But that’s not what happened. Students displayed a “dismaying consistency" of getting duped repeatedly.  The researchers stated that "Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite." What tripped up the students so often? Professional appearance and a polished "About" section easily persuaded students that a site was authoritative and neutral, and young people tended to accept information, both words and images, at face value without supporting evidence or citations. The importance of knowing who said what, or who took a picture, was lost on many participants. Most middle school students can't distinguish paid stories labeled as “sponsored content” from actual articles, most high school students accept photographs as presented, without attempting to verify them. This is a worrisome finding. Why?

Because millions of people post and share fake news stories without evaluation, without thought. They are distressed, upset, and outraged by the fake news they’ve read, and pass it on without review. What are the consequences? Millions of people read that Pope Francis has endorsed Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria, and believe it’s true, or that it "could be true". What's scary about that?

On Sunday, December 4, Edgar Welch walked into a Washington DC pizzeria and opened fire because he thought Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring there. A fake story "informed" him about the conspiracy. ABC News reports that in a text message to his girlfriend that day, Welch wrote he had been researching the "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory and it was making him "sick." In a text to a friend it, Welch allegedly wrote that the "cause" was "raiding a pedo ring, possibly sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many." Disturbing for sure; but how does fake news threaten our democracy?

The rapid rate of proliferation of a totally fake news story, or groundless claim, can make it go viral, turn it into a public pronouncement, and sway public opinion. Further, some appointees of the President Elect, and their kin, directly promote these fake news stories and sites on Twitter. General Flynn's son, for instance, continued to tweet the PizzaGate story, after Welch went into the pizzeria and fired off several shots and was arrested. This constitutes irresponsible behavior at the very least. General Michael Flynn has himself promoted this and other claims without evidence, and has been designated the head of the National Security Agency of the United States. When government officials share these baseless claims and fake news stories as fact, their proliferation can be even more rapid, as persons are even more likely to deem such claims as “reliable” or “trustworthy” when considering the source. “He has no reason to lie, does he? He’s the head of the NSA, so he knows a lot more than we do about these things.” Or, “He’s the President Elect; he wouldn’t be saying it if it weren’t true.”  Unable to evaluate the veracity of these tweets and posts, many persons can get “sick”, angry and outraged over what amounts to disinformation, or something totally made up. Right before the election, a Facebook poster was apoplectic that Hillary Clinton “bathed in the blood of murdered children in Satanic rituals.” She read it on the internet; it must be true. What folks do next, after sharing fake “breaking news” like this, in a pizzeria, or in a voting booth, is perhaps what's most worrying. I’ll share tips on detecting fake news in my next post.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of  from Columbia University Press.