Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Lie People Choose To Believe

Mark Zukerberg is embarrassed. Facebook is getting to be known as the Home of the Whopper. John Naughton writes that critics of the last election are focusing on social media:

Their baleful glare has fallen upon the internet generally and social media in particular. “For election day influence, Twitter ruled social media,” fumed the New York Times. “Donald Trump won Twitter, and that was a giveaway that he might win the presidency,” claimed Business Insider. And “Donald Trump won because of Facebook,” wrote Max Read in New York magazine.

Facebook was in the dock, though, for a different reason: it was claimed that fake news stories that had spread virally on the service had inflicted real damage on the Clinton campaign. Among these were stories that the pope had endorsed Trump, that Hillary Clinton had bought illegal arms worth $137m and that the Clintons had purchased a $200m house in the Maldives.

Twitter is Donald Trump's favourite medium. Some newspapers, such as the Toronto Star, kept track of the lies Trump told on a daily basis. But The Star works on a different model than Twitter or Facebook. After all, it employs editors. Not so with Facebook:

It makes its vast living, remember, from monitoring and making money from the data trails of its users. The more something is “shared” on the internet, the more lucrative it is for Facebook.

Just to put some numbers behind that assertion, research by BuzzFeed journalists discovered that “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined”. The study found that over the last three months of the election campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, whereas the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions and comments. In other words, if you run a social networking site, fake news is good for business, even if it’s bad for democracy.

Victor Hugo observed that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. There is, however, a corollary to Hugo's observation: There is nothing so powerful as a lie people choose to believe.


Lorne said...

Coupled with media illiteracy, poor education and a lack of critical thinking skills, fake news has clearly become a potent weapon, Owen.

Kirby Evans said...

One of the things that frightens me most about Trump's win is the realization that it was largely social media allowed him to win. I have worried for a long time that social media would gradually erode reliable news and information and allow the real rightwing, marginalized yahoos to simply spread at misinformation at will. It seems that my worst fears are quickly being realized.

Owen Gray said...

As Postman warned, Kirby, knowledge has been replaced by ignorance. And a profoundly ignorant man has become president.

Owen Gray said...

The public education system has been under attack for a generation, Lorne. Remember when Mike Harris got rid of Grade 13? When I taught Grade 13 English, we taught essay writing as a course in written argument.

Our youngest son didn't go to Grade 13. His Grade 12 English course taught him to write essays according to a formula -- and he spent a quarter of his time writing short stories. For a generation, the powers that be have worked hard to dumb things down. The American election proves how successful they've been.

Steve said...

The fake news from the mainstream was just as toxic. 17 agencies say Russian behind Wikileaks. Not covering the wikileaks. Not mentioning Hillary could not draw flys on the trail.

Owen Gray said...

The problem was the conventional wisdom that the polls couldn't be wrong, Steve. We've had plenty of evidence lately that they can be.

Toby said...

While "Victor Hugo observed that there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come" he left it to us to learn that it doesn't have to be a good idea.

Owen Gray said...

Absolutely true, Toby. Some ideas are like pet rocks -- absolutely ridiculous.

Rural said...

There is little doubt about the 'power' of social media but as a medium for discussing any subject in a meaningful and fact checked way it is a dismal failure, Owen. Which is exactly why as one who is quite active online on blogs and forums I want NOTHING to do with Facecrap and Twitsplace. Mind you I view twitter as a good tool for spreading links to more fulsome information especially in an emergency and at least you dont have to 'join' it to view the info.
The 'news' world is a changing and old farts like me will be left wondering if anyone reads more than 140 characters at a time.....!

Owen Gray said...

Imagine limiting communication to 140 characters, Rural. It's like trying to squeeze life into a matchbox.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we are missing the obvious.
All media relies upon advertising revenue to survive and is therefore suspect of manipulation.
Many years ago the CBC TV admitted to tailoring subject matter to meet the approval of advertisers.
Advertising radio and TV such as CKNW and Global here in BC push the party line ( Conservative /Liberal) whilst screaming impartiality to there audience.
It is difficult to consider profit motivated news sources as impartial.
Social media and Main stream media don't differ so much.


Owen Gray said...

Point well taken, TB. These days, when it comes to electronic media, I go often to the BBC. Unfortunately, that corporation is a rare bird. Beyond that, one needs to choose one's sources carefully.