Taking responsibility for the 'Fake News' pandemic

Facebook is under fire for failing to rein in fake and biased news stories. Its predicament stems from this basic conundrum: It exercises great control over the news its users see, but it declines to assume the editorial responsibility that traditional publishers do. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Misinformation is becoming an increasingly serious issue for the American youth. Fake news stories have always maintained a presence in American culture, but social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have allowed these stories to extend their reach, leading to a generation of young Americans who often fail to differentiate between real and fake news. This issue became more publicized after the 2016 presidential election due to claims that fraudulent news sites influenced the outcome of the election, and according to NPR, companies like Google and Facebook have come under fire for not regulating false news.

However, it is not entirely the responsibility of sites like Facebook to regulate false news. As a social media platform, the original intent of Facebook was not to act as a source of news, and as Mark Zuckerberg notes in the NPR piece, his concerns were more about civility than journalistic integrity. Restrictions on posts were determined based on a flagging system to prevent cyberbullying rather than to fact check news. Even while false news stories can be harmful, there is a clear difference between this harm and the harm brought about by offensive or violent words and sexual content, which are regulated on the site.

According to NPR , the new issues that Facebook’s “community operations team” (the department that judges which flagged posts are censored) must face are false reporting on the presidential election from sites like departed.co  and usatodaycom.com. Not only would checking every one of these supposed “news” posts be a monstrous task that would give Facebook unforeseen power over which news is or is not presented; it would also raise new issues concerning free speech on the social media platform.

With issues of hateful words, it is easy to justify a limit on a person’s freedom of speech, but with fake news, it becomes difficult to determine what is intended to act as deceptive news and what is not. The result is a line that is very difficult to draw, especially when it comes to satire. For example, the Onion is a satirical newspaper that is comprised entirely of fake news, and yet its intentions are to be humorous and satirical rather than deceptive. Similarly, late shows like the Daily Show have a habit of altering or exaggerating real news stories for the purpose of satire. However, this does not mean that every post with an article from the Onion or a Daily Show video need be taken down from the site.

The responsibility for regulating these false news sites therefore lies with the readers, since it is impractical to believe that the creators of fake news will cease their deception as long as it continues to generate income. Yet numerous studies have shown that young Americans are surprisingly unable to judge the credibility of the news they read. One study conducted by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education showed that 80 percent of middle school students mistook native ads labeled as “sponsored content” for real news stories. During other portions of the study, it was determined that many students cannot judge the difference between real and fake news sources on Facebook and Twitter; in fact, only 25 percent of students understood the importance of the blue checkmark on Twitter that marks the official account for a Twitter user.

The problem, according to a WNPR report, is that students are not properly taught how to make these judgment calls. In younger grades, distrusted Internet content is blocked so that students do not have access to it; therefore, there was no reason to teach students about journalistic integrity and media credibility. Now that children are spending more of their time online without guidance, however, this education is becoming more and more necessary.

The result is an increasingly misinformed American public. It might be an exaggeration to claim that fake news completely overturned the 2016 election, but if Americans cannot recognize it as fraud, there is no question that it does have some effect on public opinion. Therefore, it is critical that children be taught to be skeptical of where they obtain their news, instead of leaving both the responsibility and the power to the oversight of companies like Facebook.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.