The Danger of Fake News in Inflaming or Suppressing Social Conflict
Fake news—news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false designed to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality—has been used to influence politics and promote advertising. But it has also become a method to stir up and intensify social conflict. Stories that are untrue and that intentionally mislead readers have caused growing mistrust among American people. In some cases, this mistrust results in incivility, protest over imaginary events, or violence. This unravels the fabric of American life, turning neighbor against neighbor. Why would anyone do this? People, organizations, and governments—foreign governments and even our own—use fake news for two different reasons. First, they intensify social conflict to undermine people’s faith in the democratic process and people’s ability to work together . Second, they distract people from important issues so that these issues remain unresolved. This section explores how fake news is used for distraction and intensifying conflict.
In one infamous case, a fake news story (and the comments people attached to it) moved one man to shoot up a pizzeria that was linked by bogus statements to human trafficking and a presidential candidate. In the incident nicknamed “Pizzagate,” a man with a semi-automatic rifle walked into a regular Washington, DC pizza joint – Comet Ping Pong – and fired shots. Why? He was convinced that the pizzeria contained a hidden pedophilia trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign. Where did he come up with this notion? Alt-right communities first created this piece of fiction, and fake news websites promoted the lie by citing specific locations such Comet Ping Pong. It was then tweeted further by people in the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Vietnam, as well as many bots, getting the story much additional attention. Fake news – political in nature – influenced a man to fire shots inside this restaurant, nearly killing innocent people. The spread of information that was knowingly false had potentially deadly consequences .
Intensifying Social Conflict
People with malicious intent can use fake news to make American national conflicts more intense. Politically motivated fake news came from multiple sources: foreign governments, such as the Russian Internet Research Agency; American political operatives who used illegitimately-acquired Facebook data from the Cambridge Analytica firm to convince social media users how to vote; and from politically motivated groups, such as the alt-right, alt-left, and conspiracy theorists. Despite their different goals, they spread similar fake news stories.
Russia’s Internet Research Agency
During and after the 2016 election, Russian agents created social media accounts to spread fake news that stirred protests and favored presidential candidate Donald Trump while discrediting candidate Hillary Clinton and her associates. They paid Facebook for advertisements that appeared on that site to spread fake news and turn Americans against one another. The U.S. Congressional Intelligence committees responsible for investigating fake news have released 3,500 of these advertisements to the public.
Ads focused on controversial social issues such as race, the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2 nd Amendment, immigration, and other issues. The Russians even went so far as to stage protests and counter protests about a given issue, literally having Americans fight one another.
This Russian ad was targeted to people living in South Carolina on June 30, 2016. There’s no real “Black Matters” group.
Russians also paid Facebook to have this ad shown to people residing in Washington, DC:
“Alexander Nix, Cambridge Analytica chief, is among the executives coming under pressure for the group’s business practices.” Source: Financial Times
Cambridge Analytica was a company that specialized in using data from social media to build psychological profiles about social media users in various countries. It acquired data for 87 million Facebook users without the users’ knowledge or consent . With these data—specifically a person’s “Likes”—they were able to predict people’s political preferences and issue interests. Political campaign operatives coordinated by Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, used this information to target political advertisements and memes on Facebook that mainly focused on discrediting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and influencing Americans on a number of pro-Trump issues . These messages were often inflammatory, sensationalistic, sometimes violent, and false. They exploited data that many Americans never agreed to share with advertisers.
Other Political Groups
Another major effort to disrupt American society has been to fuel fires of suspicion and conspiracy in the wake of major social tragedies—mass shootings, in particular. Conspiracy theorists were fed, and quickly reposted content that originated from Russian agents, political campaign operatives, and other fake news sources, which claimed that these shootings were staged (usually, they claimed, to fool people into supporting gun restrictions). People shared these messages across their social networks. Professor Kate Starbird at the University of Washington assessed this ripple effect by analyzing the links from tweets to websites and comments that promoted the belief that the mass shootings weren’t real . Her computer program collected tweets with hashtags that included terms like “false flag,” “crisis actor,” and “staged.” Overall, she collected 99,474 tweets from 15,150 users. The tweets referenced 117 websites, 80 of which were “alternative media,” or fake news. Additionally, 44 websites had a clear political agenda: 22 were alt-right, 4 were alt-left, and 7 were anti-globalist.
Fake news poses a serious threat to American democracy. During the 2016 US presidential election, fake news was more prevalent on social media than genuine news and it’s unclear whether interventions from Facebook and Twitter and the U.S. government changed this in subsequent elections. Although social media companies are attempting to slow the spread of misinformation by implementing fact-checking programs, these tactics to identify, flag, and remove misinformation, especially regarding the COVID-19 vaccines, are not as effective as they should be. This places additional responsibility on social media users to recognize Fake News and report these posts or avoid interacting with them altogether . Over 62% of Americans receive their news from social media . This makes a large portion of the public vulnerable, because people who read fake news are very likely to believe it. Regardless who posts it, fake news intentionally undermines trust in the news and the government.
Social Media Is Killing Your Friendships
I’ll comment on a friend’s post and then Facebook suggests friending a former classmate, but instead of doing that, I’ll scroll through their profile and learn about the last few years of their life… until I see an article that sends me down a research spiral and a comment section that leaves my brain on hyperdrive.
Maybe the blue light that illuminates our faces as we scroll through feeds and friends’ profiles is to blame for disrupting our sleep cycle. Being unrested can explain the grogginess and irritability one has. Or it could be something else.
“It seems we really can only handle about 150 friends, including family members,” says R.I.M. Dunbar, PhD, a professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. He tells Healthline that this “limit is set by the size of our brains.”
Dunbar and other researchers established this by conducting brain scans, finding that the number of friends we have, offline and online, is related to the size of our neocortex, the part of the brain that manages relationships.
According to data from GlobalWebIndex, people were spending an average of more than 2 hours a day on social media and messaging in 2017. This is half an hour more than in 2012 and likely to continue to increase as time goes on.
But Dunbar’s recent study, published in 2016, suggests that even though social media allows us to “break through the glass ceiling” of maintaining offline relationships and have larger social networks, it doesn’t overcome our natural capacity for friendships.
Often, within the 150-limit network, we have inner circles or layers that require a certain amount of regular interaction to maintain the friendship, whether that’s grabbing coffee or at least having some type of back-and-forth conversation.
Think about your own social circle and how many of those friends you consider closer than others. Dunbar concludes that each circle requires different amounts of commitment and interaction.
He says we need to interact “at least once a week for the inner core of five intimates, at least once a month for the next layer of 15 best friends, and at least once a year for the main layer of 150 ‘just friends.’”
“We are fooling ourselves,” he explains. “You can certainly sign up as many people as you like, but that doesn’t make them friends. All we are doing is signing up people that we would normally think of as acquaintances in the offline world.”
Dunbar says that, just like we do in the face-to-face world, we dedicate the bulk of our interaction on social media to the 15 people closest to us, with about 40 percent of our attention going to our 5 besties and 60 percent to our 15.
This ties into one of the oldest arguments in favor of social media: It might not expand the number of true friendships, but these platforms can help us maintain and strengthen our important bonds.
One of the perks of social media is being able to engage in the milestones of people I don’t live near. I can be a voyeur of everything from precious moments to mundane meals, all while I go about my own daily routine.
After the presidential election, I considered social media an opportunity to bridge the political divide. I crafted what I hoped were respectful political posts about women’s rights and climate change.
From a moral, political, or ethical debate to admissions of #metoo, we’re often angered or feel pressured to chime in — especially as more familiar faces and voices join the opposite side. But at what cost to ourselves — and to others?
In her work, she researches how people express moral outrage on social media and whether their empathy or compassion is different online than in person. A single like or comment may be meant to affirm opinions, but they can also snowball and affect your offline relationships.
Facebook’s research team also asked a similar question: Is social media good or bad for our well-being? Their answer was that spending time was bad, but actively interacting was good.
But what happens when these active interactions turn rotten? Even if you don’t unfriend someone over a dispute, the interaction — at the very least — may change your impressions with and of them.
In a Vanity Fair article about the end of the social media era, Nick Bilton wrote: “Years ago, a Facebook executive told me that the biggest reason people unfriend each other is because they disagree on an issue.
Also, former Facebook exec Chamanth Palihapitiya made headlines for saying, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works… [Social media] is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Click-bait title aside, social media is becoming a huge dependency for some individuals. In a society where many of us are feeling increasingly isolated and despairing, living your life through a screen and celebrating conspicuous consumerism act as a balm for both loneliness and personal inadequacy. It’s chillingly reminiscent of the soma used in Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, which kept the oppressed population subdued and pacific.
Instagram || Twitter || Facebook || Amazon || Pinterest
Click-bait title aside, social media is becoming a huge dependency for some individuals. In a society where many of us are feeling increasingly isolated and despairing, living your life through a screen and celebrating conspicuous consumerism act as a balm for both loneliness and personal inadequacy. It’s chillingly reminiscent of the soma used in Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, which kept the oppressed population subdued and pacific. So many of us use social media every day, if not every hour, and it’s so easy to get lost in the massive ocean of data. So easy. This book is about how not to get lost– or, if you do get lost, how to find your way back.
WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS RUINING YOUR LIFE covers a wide away of life-ruining topics, from motherhood to debt to politics to depression, and in each of these essays, Katherine Ormerod says why, exactly, social media is exacerbating existing problems, and what we can do to combat it or at least be aware of the effects. I became interested in this book when I watched the author’s TED talk by the same name, which seems to be modeled after her essay about “career and money.” On the one hand, it’s a bit difficult to take her seriously because you have this posh and glamorous looking woman with an Instagram feed drowning in privileged lifestyle telling you that her life isn’t actually as awesome as it seems–and yet, that’s the point, isn’t it? As awesome as her life looks– and as awesome as the lives of most influencers look– you never get to actually look behind the curtains. Because if you saw the struggle, strife, and unpleasantries behind each carefully curated photo, all the magic would be gone. Even so, it’s hard not to roll your eyes.
Reading this book was very personal to me because I’ve been fairly active in the blogging community for 10+ years, and during those early years, I was very depressed. I’ve actually stopped using a few platforms because I couldn’t help but compare myself (unfairly) against others, and feel like I’d fallen short. In 2016, I actually deleted thousands of reviews written over a seven-year period because I wanted a fresh start, and also, I wanted to prove to myself that I could; that I wasn’t so dependent on social media that I couldn’t pull a Marie Kondo on the content I’d written that wasn’t sparking joy, and was in fact making me feel worse about myself. It was probably one of the more difficult and weighty online decisions I ever made, but I did it, and it made me a lot happier. I’ve worked very hard to be authentic and consistent in what I say online, and when that content was no longer representative of who I am and what I believe in, I elected to remove that content.
The only thing I didn’t really like about this book was the political section. In each segment, you see, Ormerod interviews various influencers and YouTubers to get their hot takes for each essay, and most of the people she interviews are good, but the political section fell short. I felt like the author was out of her depth, and didn’t like the person (whose name I can’t remember) griping about TERFs, and how discussing the exclusion of transgender people from (I’m assuming cis-gendered) woman’s spaces automatically makes you a TERF. Well, it kind of does? That’s basically the definition of it, to a T. Not really sure what there is to discuss about that. This whole section felt incredibly uninformed. I’m not super active in politics, but I wasn’t impressed with the half-cocked mentioning of TERFs and Brexit, because those aren’t things you can just drop and then not diffuse; they are sensitive topics.
Overall, though, I really did like WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS RUINING YOUR LIFE. I actually think this book should be required reading for high school students, as it brings up a lot of topics I don’t think people (of any age) necessarily think about: that influencers have a self-serving motive in what they post, that if the site you’re using is free you’re probably the product, and that it’s easy to make false comparisons between yourself and others when it comes to perceived haves and have nots. To some extent, the internet is the biggest fantasy role-play of all time, and how much you choose to participate or believe in it is really on you– and it’s okay to step back if it gets to be too much.