You know fake news is a problem, but you’re not part of the problem, right? You “heart” photos of your cousin’s newborn. You comment to cheer on a colleague running her first 5K. You retweet a meme, sharing a clever thought.
But take another look at that meme. If it was fake news, or a bot placed by someone trying to stir up controversy, would you spot it?
“In today’s world, nobody can tell for sure that the information they receive is 100 percent accurate and reliable,” says Janey Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. “Even experts have a hard time weeding out fake accounts and automatic messages.”
You could read and spread inaccuracies from either side of the partisan divide, even if your information comes from political leaders. Last month President Trump falsely claimed that his State of the Union address drew the biggest audience ever. And U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders incorrectly told NBC’s Meet the Press that 40 percent of guns sold in the U.S. don’t involve a background check.
Bots push people apart
Fake news divides people, and bots can make those divisions worse. Bots are a form of artificial intelligence that can mimic human behavior. They can retweet a story or push a link, aiming to polarize people. Many are linked to Russia. “What the Russian bots are trying to do is sow discord and make us fight,” says Randall Minas Jr., assistant professor and head of the Information Technology Management Association at the Shidler College of Business at the University of Hawaii.
Bots pick up on keywords or hashtags in controversial topics and use computer algorithms to create and spread extreme views that emotionally arouse people. “Those messages can create a perception of serious political polarization and huge divisions in society,” says Lee.
When you have 320 million people disagreeing on what truth is, that can do much more damage to society than hacking into the State department.
Networks of bots can spread messages quickly, fooling social media platforms and creating the perception that a topic is trending, when in fact it’s just being posted and retweeted by computers. People then believe that these trending topics reflect what most people think. If they see contrasting opinions trending, they believe that there is a huge division in public opinion.
“Bots don’t create trends, they amplify them. That’s what we saw in Florida when David Hogg became a trending topic on multiple platforms. Bots were pushing that,” says Sam Huxley, practice chair of risk and business strategy, for the communications firm LEVICK. He’s referring to the claims that “crisis actors,” not actual students, were playing the roles of the teenagers who survived the Parkland school shootings.
Bots don’t create trends, they amplify them.
Why we fall for fake news
Paid actors stirring up trouble in a time of crisis can seem almost unbelievable, but our brains have powerful instincts toward resolving conflict, explains Minas. Here’s how our brains do it. Say you’re in favor of AR-15 rifles and you find out that the AR-15 was used to kill 17 people in Florida. You are faced with an internal conflict, or what experts call cognitive dissonance. You feel good about the AR-15, but bad about the kids. So, when you hear the fake news that those kids were just paid crisis actors, you feel better. You see that news repeated in your social media feeds, and you believe it must be true. You can discount the severity of the Florida school shooting and continue to feel good about the AR-15. Your conflict is resolved.
Paid actors stirring up trouble in a time of crisis can seem almost unbelievable, but our brains have powerful instincts toward resolving conflict.
Minas worries about the threat created by fake news and bots. “Hacking into minds, which is essentially what’s happening, is difficult to prove,” he says. “When you have 320 million people disagreeing on what truth is, that can do much more damage to society than hacking into the State department.”
How can you spot the fakes?
Start by assuming that not all the news in your feed is true. Then:
- Question the source. If a story comes from a newspaper, is it from a reputable site? The Denver Guardian, cited often in 2016, never existed and listed an empty car park as its address.
- Look for confirmation. If you don’t see a story across mainstream media, there’s probably a good reason why. “Mainstream media is motivated by getting an audience.” Huxley says.
- Check the facts with third-party sites like Snopes and Politifact. Admittedly, though, fact checking has its limits. By the time a claim is researched and proven false, it may have already reached millions of accounts.
- Call out fake news you see in your network — but do it privately. “What polarizes people further is calling them out publicly. Then people get defensive because it makes them look stupid or gullible for posting it in the first place.” Huxley says.
Botcheck.me can check Twitter for bots, and you can log in to Facebook from a computer to see if you’ve liked or followed a page created by the organization behind the Russian bots.
How can you clean your feed?
Let’s be honest. When you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, scrolling through your Twitter feed, you’re probably not going to bother with research and fact checking. These steps can cut back on the fake or manipulative information that could find its way into your feed:
- Burst your own bubble. With every page you like or follow, and every person you friend, your social media stream fills with their posts, shares and tweets. Add and delete sources, and seek information that contradicts what you think. “You don’t have to believe it or adopt it, but you need to expose yourself to it,” Minas says.
- Beat the social media algorithm. Platforms show us the information they think we want to see. “The articles that you have a reaction to — that you like or heart — are the ones [social media sites] will start drawing more sources from,” Minas says. Click on links for sites that have news articles to expand what you’re shown.
- Don’t assume video is real. A worrisome new trend is fake video — using artificial intelligence to place people in situations that they were never in.
- Spot the bot warning signs. Does this person post about only one topic? Who else do they follow? Do they post or tweet hundreds of times a day, trying to get their message out before they get caught? Are there a lot of typos or grammatical errors? Do they post in multiple languages? Botcheck.me can check Twitter for bots, and you can log in to Facebook from a computer to see if you’ve liked or followed a page created by the organization behind the Russian bots.
- Recognize your biases. We are all inclined to agree with information we already believe and to discount information contrary to our beliefs.
- Watch out for transfers of trust. If your best friend shares something, you’re likely to believe it. We trust information posted by people we trust, and that trust transfers to the message, regardless the message’s origin.