The Real Impact of Fake News
With the increasing use of social media making it ever easier to disseminate information to millions of people with a single click, there has been an increase in the prevalence of fake as well as real news. Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the term “fake news” has evolved from referring to satirical news, intended to be humorous and not used as a sole source of information, to referring to deliberate misinformation intended to sway viewers’ opinions. Many Americans across the political spectrum believe that fake news has negatively impacted U.S. politics, with 64% saying that fake news has caused “a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events” . While the true effects of fake news on politics remain unclear, the partisan nature of fake news may increase political divisions and lead to further polarization in the United States.
Fake news can hinder civil discourse via the formation of “echo chambers,” in which like-minded individuals form homogenous clusters and confirm and strengthen each other’s partisan beliefs . Many individuals believe they are impervious to the effects of fake news, with 84% of Americans reporting that they felt very or somewhat confident in their own ability to detect fabricated news . However, nearly a quarter of Americans reported sharing fake news, either knowingly or unknowingly . Additionally, 61% of millennials report using Facebook as their main news source, which may lead skewed content from fake news to influence voting behavior . Individuals are more likely to believe false stories that are shared by people with similar political beliefs to themselves, or “normative peers,” regardless of whether a normative peer explicitly endorses the content or not . When people choose to ascribe more importance to facts and opinions that they agree with, they are shutting out valid conflicting views and reducing opportunities for compromise.
The formation of online echo chambers may simply be a manifestation of existing partisanship, rather than the other way around. A seminal 2017 post-election study found that fake news likely did not have a statistically significant impact on the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election . However, this does not mean that fake news was not a relevant factor in political discourse. Fake news may have effects that are more subtle and indirect, but no less harmful, as it influences the focus of politics and contributes to polarization. Research has found that not only do Americans see other individuals as more susceptible to fake news than themselves, but they also see members of the opposite party as more susceptible to fake news than members of their own party . Thus, fake news increases perceived divisions between political parties and increases already high levels of polarization, which makes compromises in government more difficult.
Social media platforms have begun to increase their efforts to reduce fabricated content, but it is impossible to completely remove fake news from the internet. However, a few simple tactics can aid attentive social media users in discerning the difference between real and fake news. Online fact checkers evaluate the veracity of public, verifiable statements and debunk rumors, and can be accessed by anyone seeking to confirm or disprove a skeptical claim. Some prominent online fact checkers include University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck, the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact, and Snopes, as well as a host of others. These are valuable resources in identifying the truth, though it is important to note that some of these fact checkers have their own political agendas, and thus may only make an effort to expose falsehoods by specifics groups of people.
An even easier method to avoid being fooled by fake news is to be curious and maintain an open mind. Confirmation bias often leads people to seek out information that confirms their preexisting beliefs and avoid facts that may disprove them, which may increase their susceptibility to fake news . It can also be beneficial to consider multiple perspectives on issues. One study found that when individuals were instructed to remain unbiased while reviewing a variety of evidence on both sides of an issue, their own pre-existing beliefs were strengthened regardless of whether they read confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence . But when individuals read either confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence and were encouraged to consider the evidence and then consider the opposite perspective, they overcame the biased assimilation effect and rated the persuasiveness of the evidence more fairly . By making an effort to understand a variety of perspectives, you can avoid falling prey to fake news.
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