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How misinformation/ disinformation on social media is destroying our democracy 

Social media has given a platform for individuals to share their voices faster and to a broader audience than ever before. At our nation’s founding, it would have been unimaginable to predict that anyone would be able to speak at any time from anywhere. This phenomenon has lent itself to the creation of a new type of speaker, a bolder ego unafraid of sharing what is on their mind. In reaction, our government is stuck with a thought-provoking dilemma of what “free speech” truly entails in this day and age. The oratory vehicle that social media has become provides several cultural stresses on the democratic structure, such as an overload of information, the creation of a hive mind and radicalization. Perhaps the greatest threat to democracy, which works in tandem with the aforementioned, is the growing misinformation and disinformation online.

Anyone can fall into the snares of believing and spreading false information. This was evidenced by a study done by researchers at MIT which found that “false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.” That study becomes even more potent when looking at a mass of individuals, where it was mentioned that “it takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.” Another study that exemplifies the true might of this swelling issue is done by PEW Research Center which found that “62% of Americans get their news from social media” and “two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” These numbers become even more alarming when noticing that this study was conducted in 2016, and one can assume that with social media gaining more influence almost daily, the percentages of adults that receive their news from social media has increased since then. In addition to this, recent controversies such as the 2016 and 2020 elections, the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have further contributed to the public’s perception of inaccurate information in their daily news consumption. 

If speech has lost its value in society and is no longer desired to be truthful, then what exactly drives speech to be productive? The founding fathers, with Madison serving as a preeminent example, believed that speech would be a tool to uphold the democratic structure by allowing people to put forth their best argument and allow society to choose the superior. However, platforms, in the form of social media, have sanctioned speech that is innately worthless with the intent to troll and solicit a reaction. The more salacious a headline, the more engagement it is bound to receive. Not only does this cultivate fake news, but it also changes insights of the general public. Fake rhetoric allows for radicalization and a strengthening of ideals through an echo-chamber. It also may allow for individuals to feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information available and discourage them from participating in the wider political sphere. This problem then breeds bigger issues such as the political polarization that seemingly widens each day. Thus, our democracy is on its way to facing a grave peril.

The question now beckons — which approach should the government enforce to tackle this menacing predicament? To start, it should be noted that the government would be greatly overstepping its power to combat this problem, because it has no jurisdiction over these social media platforms as they are private entities. One should ask themselves if they believe that social media should be held accountable by the government for allowing false information to be spread. Is the problem so dire that it would require the government to encroach in the private sector? 

To answer this, there are two salient schools of thought that are worth mentioning. The first of which is libertarianism, which essentially believes the marketplace of ideas should be allowed to occur naturally and be shown deference from the government. Justice Kennedy, who prescribes to this ideology (Fish, Stanley Eugene, “What Is the First Amendment For?), has shown his wariness to the government’s “chilling” speech. On the other side lies consequentialism, which argues that speech should be regulated by the government if the harms outweigh the benefits of the speech. A growing outcry in favor of consequentialism has emerged with false information being spewed across a myriad of social media channels. Consequentialists would most likely believe that the threat posed by misinformation is too hazardous and thus should be controlled by the government. 

Personally, I identify more in the libertarian camp. I struggle with allowing a government to have control over censoring voices, as this could eventually lead to the silencing of opposing voices. However, I do think that social media has transformed speech as we understand it and that the government must adjust to our new reality. The government should not have the power to dictate what constitutes “false” information, but perhaps it should put pressure on social media misinformation warning, and I think we should ensure that apps begin to make this the norm in order to address this problem. Regardless if this is the answer or not, something must be done to stop the spread of misinformation. Maybe then people will be able to have more productive conversations about politics and can come to understand their own beliefs on a deeper and more truthful level.

Kelly Harris is a senior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in political science and minoring in digital marketing, musical theatre and Glynn Honors. She is originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and resided in Pangborn and Johnson Family Halls. If you wish to reach Kelly with any questions or concerns feel free to email kharri22@nd.edu.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Yellow journalism, read all over

I made a pact with myself this year to read actively and more widely about the news. This may be surprising for someone who has both written and worked for The Observer since my freshman year at Notre Dame. However, I found myself barely being able to keep up with my seminar readings, rooted in the classical world, and failed to acquaint myself with contemporary and global issues.

I think my reluctance to engage in current events wasn’t a matter of apathy or a jaded reception to political reporting, but rather, fatigue from the saturation of varying media content. Headlines and infographics with attention-grabbing statistics filled my news feeds and social media. Instead of viewing articles as an informational resource, I found myself gauging the calculated colors, fonts and word choice that enticed readers to click. As a marketing major, I understand that marketing is all about changing the perception of a concept or idea. But to what extent can the perceptions change before it alters the integrity of the content?

Lindsay Juarez is the Director of Irrational Labs, an organization that uses behavioral science insights to drive innovation and growth. She presented her research to my Consumer and Organizational Buyer Behavior class, demonstrating how behavioral science was used to reduce the spread of misinformation on TikTok.

TikTok came to the lab believing it had a responsibility to reduce the spread of misinformation. Prompts were placed on content that was not able to be verified by fact-checkers, and they were flagged as “unsubstantiated content.” As such, users would be given three seconds of the pop-up to move forward with sharing the content even though it was unverified. The implementation of prompts “reduced shares by 24% when compared to a control group.” 

They explained the behavioral science behind the phenomenon, using layman’s terms exploring humans’ “hot” and “cold” states. Media platforms such as TikTok play a role in activating users’ hot states, in which they are overwhelmed by the “power of emotion” and quickly interpret and share content. By placing prompts that indicated that content was unverifiable, TikTok was able to slow down this “hot state” and allow people to become more logical and deliberate with reposting content.

The phenomenon of inciting emotions and “hot states” in behavioral science reminds me of the yellow journalism movement, noted for its emphasis on sensationalism and exaggeration. It is particularly notable in its instrumental use of inciting public sentiment against the Spanish right before the start of the Spanish-American War.

Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used this style of journalism by “accentuating the harshness of Spanish rule” or even printing false stories that drove adversarial attitudes. The result was an increase in sales of the papers and a furthering of the combative climate surrounding U.S. expansion.

The peak of this phenomenon was in 1898 when the USS Maine, a battleship sunk in the Havana harbor. While the origins of the explosion were unknown, newspapers in the U.S. published rumors that enemies had plotted to sink the ship.

Although yellow journalism did not create anti-Spanish sentiment, it certainly fanned the flames of international tension. Though the term is most associated with political movements in the late 19th century, sensationalism in journalism and media is still prevalent.

The Observer’s mantra is “to uncover the truth, and report it accurately.” The commitment to accuracy in reporting is essential to the world of journalism, but, at the same time, media channels are businesses. And attractive headlines and enticing titles sell.

Sensationalism in journalism in modern times may not always be as extreme as it was previously, due to more rigorous fact-checking and more credibility within certain publishers. But the implicit biases that sway our perceptions of certain issues remain. I don’t think these biases are inherently bad; they are a part of human nature and simply reveal our inclinations and desires. However, it’s important to recognize and analyze the origins of the pieces with which we interact, acknowledging the crucial human thought that creates differences in the perceptions and reporting of a single event. These variations can be presented in a two-fold manner: the content itself, and the way we market and present the content to readers.

Instant gratification is ever-present in public media channels that are targeted toward younger demographics, such as social media. However, research by Irrational Labs and other behavioral scientists encourages me to consider the importance of the content and media that I consume and share. Sensationalism is not merely spread by bad intentions, but rather, built upon biases or quick inferences that may not be supported. Taking a step back when evaluating a resource, particularly when not attached to an accredited site, requires effort and time, but makes us better-informed consumers of information.

I think it’s easy to dismiss our posts and retweets as a lack of personal significance. We think that the words we share and the things we declare have little-to-no weight. However, if I’ve learned anything from having a column, it’s that we implicitly share a responsibility to secure accuracy and intentionality in the things we publish and reshare.

From the comments and emails that I’ve received from professors and students alike, I’ve realized that my reach is far greater than my inner circle. It encompasses an invisible thread of connections I could have never predicted. While this is an exciting byproduct of the nomadic nature of words, at the same time, it means I have a further responsibility to make sure the things I share represent both honest intentions and truthful findings.

I’m not trying to inflate my role in democratic discourse. I know that there’s very little chance that people are hanging on to my words by an invisible thread. However, I believe that intentionality and attentiveness, no matter the grandeur or impact, is integral to this discussion. If every time we post, we pause beforehand and take a moment to reflect, maybe we’ll foster an environment for better-informed citizens. Maybe if we examine the content we consume and share a little deeper, we’ll learn more about the world, and inevitability, about ourselves.

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out to eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.