We have a problem. “Fake News” is no longer just conspiracy theories being debated in forums on the fringe of the World Wide Web. It has crossed the chasm to mainstream news and is being fueled by massive disinformation campaigns, further driving a wedge not only between people in the U.S., but between communities in countries throughout the world. Don’t believe it’s that bad? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a source I believe pretty much everyone agrees is reputable, released a study earlier this month that shows false stories spread wider and more quickly than stories assessed as being truthful. The problem is particularly acute with political stories which are three times more likely to be shared, but it doesn’t stop there as every other topic experiences an uptick as well.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of it. Sick of the partisan bickering and isolationism it fuels. Sick of the impact it has had on people’s ability to listen to each other and debate in a productive and constructive manner. Sick of the general distrust in each other that has emerged.
Everyone, from our government officials, to our industry and technology leaders, to you and I, have been trying to put our finger on who is to blame for the “Fake News” problem we are faced with today. Over the last few months in particular, it seems like many are declaring social media platforms, and more broadly, technology or Silicon Valley, are to blame. In fact, if you’ve watched the news over the last few days you may be penciling in Facebook as an evil organization that sacrificed personal privacy and actively participated in the spread of “Fake News” in order to make a buck.
Do social media platforms and technology share some blame? Absolutely! They have long held an altruistic vision of creating environments and devices that can connect people and promote the free exchange of ideas which by itself is commendable. This altruism also likely contributed to many businesses being slower to react when issues arose and played a role in critical corporate or security policy decisions being delayed or avoided altogether.
But, don’t we share some of the blame? I know none of us wants to believe we could be the problem, but we are the consumers of news. We are the ones responsible for interpreting what we read and determining whether we believe it or not. We are also the ones who decide whether to share it or not.
There are steps that social media platforms and our government officials must take in order to do whatever they can to better control the dissemination of false stories – there’s no question about that. However, I believe all of us need to enter into a social contract, promising each other to resist the urge to share, like, favorite or re-tweet, a story we find online without first evaluating the source, corroborating it with our own research, and considering the potential pros and cons of pushing it into the public-sphere. We owe it to each other.