Yes, There's Lots Of Fake News On Facebook, But Is It Really Changing Anyone's Mind?

from the probbly-not dept

We’ve already written about how silly and dangerous it is that some people (especially journalists) rushed to blame Facebook for their disappointment that Donald Trump won the election. I’ve explained why I think the whole “fake news” problem is completely overblown — but the issue has gotten a new blast of energy from an interesting analysis done by Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed, saying that in the weeks leading up to the election there was more engagement with fake news on Facebook than real news. Here’s the key chart that everyone’s passing around.

That’s a pretty scary looking chart. But it’s not clear it really supports the argument that fake news was actually an influencing factor. First of all, there are some questions about the methodology here and whether or not BuzzFeed is actually overselling the true story based on the headline (and, yes, there’s irony in the idea that a story claiming that fake news is shared more than real news may have a misleading or “fake” title…). Beyond just questions of how you track Facebook “engagement,” it’s also not always clear if all engagement is the same. Hell, what if many of the comments on a fake news story are versions of “this is fake.” That counts as engagement, but undermines the idea that people are interacting with fake news only because they believe it. Even the author of the piece, Silverman, weighed in on Twitter with a bunch of caveats about what the story doesn’t actually show (even as many reading it are assuming it does).

But, also there’s still the much larger question of whether or not fake news actually has an impact, or if it’s just being shared. In another interesting article, the folks over at the Guardian got a group of people who identified as either strongly “left” or strongly “right” and tried to get them to use a Facebook feed designed for someone at the other end of that spectrum. And guess what? It didn’t change people’s minds. In most cases, it just caused people to dig in deeper with their positions, getting angrier at the other side for the stuff that was published on “that side.” It would be funny how “tribal” people get if it wasn’t resulting in a huge and ridiculous division in our society. In that article, people on both sides used the “opposing” side’s feed as some sort of evidence of just how dishonest/angry/evil the other side was. The only person who changed his mind only did so to decide not to vote for President at all.

The problem here doesn’t seem to be “fake news.” The problem (and we see this in our own comments as well) is that people have decided that there are these monolithic groups — “the left” or “the right” — and they ascribe all sorts of evil motivations and intentions to them. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve seen comments about “the left blah blah blah” or “the right blah blah blah” and they’re always extreme and ridiculous stereotypes that have very little basis in reality. People are rooting for their “team” rather than good ideas or good policy. That’s dangerous. And, yes, fake news that people can share that enforces their viewpoints is a reflection of that attitude, but it’s not the cause of it. If people want to fix the “problem” of fake news getting shared, maybe work on ways to get people to stop playing “red team / blue team” and to start recognizing that what matters is the actual policy decisions and actions. That’s likely wishful thinking, but it would be nice if people were at least working towards a path to avoid politics as team sports.

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Comments on “Yes, There's Lots Of Fake News On Facebook, But Is It Really Changing Anyone's Mind?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

If US politics has morphed in the same fashion as UK politics, the political parties have morphed into a top down push of what policies will be followed, as opposed to a bottom up debate and decision on policies. This largely reduce the role os supporters into cheering on their team, rather than becoming involved in policy making.
This problem in the political parties is illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn being supported by the grass root members of the party, but under attack from his own parties MPs.

Christenson says:

Re: Re: You defended fake news!


(grin)You’ve committed a mortal sin in your article: asking people to THINK about the science! Since that doesn’t involve screaming about how Fake news influenced the election, you must be defending it!

For my part, all news is biased…there’s too much of it to print, it has to be sorted down, somehow, to something of digestible size. Now, traditions in that department are in flux…and fake news, like crap on cable or network TV of yore, a much wider audience than the good stuff.

So, the right question is, what is the right bias? We know that truth is involved, but little beyond that.

Peter (profile) says:

Two points:
a) The diagram is wrong: Mainstream news were fake, too. Hillary lead in the forecasts? Russian hackers? WTF?
b) Never mind Facebook. The real threat are fake news created from the Pentagon’s $5 bn PR-budget. The propaganda spread by ‘economists’. And the ‘news’ created by media who find it easier to just copy everybody else without much fact-checking. Printing a lie today and a correction tomorrow means two great stories for the price of one.

crade (profile) says:

“the folks over at the Guardian got a group of people who identified as either strongly “left” or strongly “right””

What does that show? The goal of the fake news stories (and basically everything else in the campaign) is going to be to target people who are unsure or who they actually have a chance of convincing, not the people who mailed their votes in 20 years ago.

crade (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Imagine instead a normally republican voter who is offended by Trump’s racism or some such and is considering breaking form and voting against him. Then, just before election receives some “news” they don’t have time / don’t bother to verify saying the democrats have said they are going to pass some gun control law, or some other hot button issue. These are the guys/gals who will knee-jerk just long enough for the election, it’s not going to be like they can confirm some hardcore democrat to vote republican or vica versa with fake news.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Imagine a voter, after having made sure they are indeed registered and then spending hours in line waiting to vote, being told that they can not vote. Said voter then goes home to watch the idiot media make a proclamation that everyone who wanted to had the opportunity to vote. Hahahahaha – lozerz

Anonymous Coward says:

Death to old school media

Yes yes, no messages outside government approved filters. This is censorship when government has granted the communication monopoly to specific technology companies. This drive for censorship is extremely concerning. Lamestream media was wrong often and their propaganda pieces were most definitely rejected by a person to person directly informed public. Old media is dying..d

Zarvus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It looks like there’s some indication it does sway people in one direction or another. As a personal thought, when Facebook posts it in “trending news stories” or suggests b.s. news as a “you liked x, maybe you’ll like y and z!” when someone likes something, it’s implicitly endorsing it as somehow valid, which is one of the things that is causing legitimate news organizations to drop things like Taboola and Outbrain due to clickbaity, misleading headlines and images.

Even if fake news just reinforces people’s existing opinions and causes them to dig in deeper, it is effecting change. It’s silly to suggest it’s the ONLY reason for the result of the election, but it’s equally silly to dismiss it out of hand. Russians wouldn’t be trying to sway public opinion with comment trolling if they didn’t think it was changing public opinion. It actually can.

I mean, really. It’s like trying to argue that RT or other state-sponsored news organizations/sites aren’t influencing opinions. Ref: “propaganda” and psychology, it’s effective.

The argument at its heart seems to come back to censorship and who decides what news is fake. That’s a perfectly valid argument, but to argue that it doesn’t matter in any case because fake news doesn’t influence people is flat out wrong. Argue the case on its technicalities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Dialogue is good, but...

…it requires consensus on underlying reality. And in recent years, “reality” has been redefined by a lot of irrational people into “what they want it to be” instead of “what it is”.

There are people who think creationism is real, that horoscopes have some kind of validity, that vaccines cause autism, that the moon landings were faked, and that anthropocentric global warming is a myth. None of this is correct, of course, but they will maintain it even in the face of mountains of scientific evidence and reasoning.

When it’s pointed out to them that the exact same scientific evidence and reasoning is responsible for their cell phones, cable TV, digital fitness monitors, organ transplants, minimally-invasive surgery, GPS, etc., they will wave off the obvious contradiction. Science only works when and where they WANT it to work.

No amount of conversation will change this: I know, I’ve tried. I think it’s a failure of the educational system: we don’t spend nearly enough time teaching critical thinking skills. But whatever the cause, I certainly don’t know a way to fix it. We’re well on our way to Idiocracy and large numbers of people are cheering it.

May they all live long enough to reap what they’ve sown. Perhaps the survivors, if any, will be wiser.

Anonymous Coward says:

There really was an avalanche of fake news. Shonky, two-bit propaganda shops like Slate, MSNBC, CNN, Huffington Post and Fox news pumped out nonsensical story after nonsensical story – not to mention the incredibly paranoid conspiracy theories (half the country is racist, Putin rules the world etc.). All those fake sexual assaults, the evil cartoon frogs… it was bizarre.

Anonymous Coward says:

Campaigns these days aren’t about changing minds; they’re about turning out vote the candidate the campaign supports and reducing the vote of the other campaign. The Trump campaign was very open about their goal of suppressing votes by Democrats in key constituencies during the final stage of the campaign. It worked – Trump got less votes than Romney but Clinton got way less votes than Obama. Many of the "false news" postings were targeted on Black and young voters in key states; they’re not the only thing that reduced Clinton’s vote, but they played a significant part. Facebook allowing racially targeted postings, and postings to young people in selected locations, played a role. It’s pollyanna to say that this well orchestrated campaign had no effect.

You could say, the answer is not to prevent false news but to answer it (though no one knows how) or for the Clinton campaign to have done a more effective negative campaign aimed at Trump’s supporters. But dismissing the gigantic amount of false reporting, using Facebook targeting that advertisers recognize as extremely effective as unimportant is just living in dreamland.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The Trump campaign was very open about their goal of suppressing votes by Democrats in key constituencies during the final stage of the campaign.”

Expect more of this. A lot more. Here’s what they’ll spend the next four years doing:

1. Continuing to beat the “voter fraud” drum…even though it’s a microscopic problem. I’m aware of one case of voter fraud this election — Trump supporter in Iowa. Is anyone aware of any others?

2. Continue to tighten voter ID requirements, pass more laws, etc.

3. Make it harder to get voter ID in areas viewed as Democratic. Close DMV offices in those areas, restrict hours in others, etc.

4. Close more polling places in Democratic areas. Shorten the hours of those that remain.

5. Attempt to legislate away the rule that says if you’re in line when the poll close, you get to vote.

6. Attempt to do away with early voting.

This has been the playbook to date, and there’s zero reason to expect that it’ll change. The GOP’s base is aging and dying off, so their best bet is to shrink the size of the electorate, one voter, one precinct, one county at a time.

Matthew A. Sawtell (profile) says:

In the halls of power around the world...

… there is surely a good deal of chuckling at this turn of events, given that is merely ammo for their attempts at ‘harmony’, much like the debacle about server locations has backfired:

Sorry folks – this path does not lead to ‘salvation’.

Anonymous Coward says:

What I find interesting is you go on about the left / right libtard / conservaturd issue, and how politics is broken down to which side you support. What you seem to miss is that fake news (in it’s pre-internet form) was what created most of this.

The sources are conservative to the very end. Conservative talk radio filled the void that came in the late 80s when the FCC trashed the fairness doctrine. Suddenly you could present only one side of things and not get in trouble. It gave birth to great radio stars like Rush Limbaugh. Through the miracle of syndication and mass station ownership lead to huge exposure for this brand of conservative truthiness. Opinion as fact literally ruled the airwaves. Karl Rove used the whole deal as part of the process that got Shrub Bush elected twice against all odds.

A series of polarizing events such as 9/11 and the arrival of the internet as a prime information source has opened the door for groups on both sides to get into the news business. There are plenty of sites out there that look like news sites, but are in reality front pages for think tanks, NGOs, and less formal groups to spread extremist messages under the guise of truthful news reporting.

The reason we have the left/ right he said / he said crap is exactly because of the rise of opinion as fact. People are way happier to hear that what they think is right rather than to be told they are wrong, even when they are wrong. Fake news and spin based talk radio work hand on hand to drive a wedge between the two sides. They wedge is a result of this, not the cause.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Meh, more like six of one and half a dozen of the other. It started with George Wallace and the Southern Strategy and hopefully here is where it’ll end.

Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book; the key to beating it is to stay united. We all have something in common with that git over there who disagrees with us.

As long as there are political strategists who don’t care what effect their wedge-driving has on the populace, this will continue. While they may not be creating the stories, you can bet your bottom dollar they are taking advantage of them.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Not The Only Question

“Yes, There’s Lots Of Fake News On Facebook, But Is It Really Changing Anyone’s Mind?”

I agree with you, Masnick, that it is not “changing” people’s minds from L to R or R to L. It’s not “changing” their minds in the sense that they’re not going to vote differently after reading their Facebook-fed news.

But it IS changing people’s minds in another important way. It is cementing their minds, and further locking in their chosen narrative. That is a change in the mind. It makes it harder to bring people back to a shared set of facts…facts that more or less represent reality.

(Yeah, reality is hard to define, and always subject to some bias. That’s why I say “more or less” represent reality.)

Look, we already have confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance in our amazing, faulty, monkey brains. This kind of news filtering just worsens those already big problems. This takes our human blind spots and wraps them around us 360 degrees.

This isn’t new. This exact negative outcome was predicted when the “personalization” of search and news really started taking off in 2010. Tim Berners Lee wrote an article about the “Hotel California effect” for the Guardian, and Eli Pariser published his book “Filter Bubble”. They predicted it would reduce the quality of critical thinking, and they were right.

I agree with you that just “blaming Facebook” for the election is a bit of a stretch, but you’re wrong to act like it’s not an important part of what needs to be fixed…somehow.

What’s the fix? I dunno so far. But I think we should “nerd harder”. This problem is not intractable like “encryption with backdoors”. Maybe we also should “journalism harder”, “ethics harder”, and “policy harder”.

The impact Social Networks have on bubble thinking can be reduced, and that’s a worthy objective. As long as we share on planet, it’s better if we share one version (more or less) of reality.

Anonymous Coward says:

The branding of ‘fake news’ appears to be directed at sources that do not fall in line with the narrative of the day pushed by mainstream news publications.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed in 2012 negated the Smith Mundt Act of 1948 (SMA) and Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1987, the laws that made propaganda used to influence foreigners and US citizens illegal. Since then we have seen an increasing frequency of mainstream sources pushing coordinated opinion pieces aimed to influence public opinion through emotion rather than facts.

Today mainstream sources put out news that does not hold up to scrutiny when reviewed against source documents and recording of events. That ‘fake news’ does not appear to be directed at these misleading sources suggests this is a disturbing step toward censorship of sources that provide critical thought and researched journalism that do not fall in line with the MSM message of the day.

The ‘fake news’ label needs to be appropriately applied to sources passing unsourced opinions as fact, and called out appropriately as censorship when applied to publications getting it right.

In the meantime we need a push to restore parts of the Smith Mundt Act of 1948 (SMA) and Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1987 that made it illegal to use propaganda at home.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Fake news as stalemate

No, fake news doesn’t change anyone’s’ mind. Perversely, it exists to keep anyone’s mind from being changed.

Roughly, on any issue, we can divide the public according to a 10-20-40-20-10 rule; the old bell curve in action. The people creating the fake news are in the outside 10% segments. From that group, on one side:

  • 10% are creating the fake news.
  • The adjacent 20% are prevented from shifting their beliefs forward by the horror of the opposite side of the curve generated by the fake news.
  • The middle 40% are kept indecisive by conflicting views, a little sickened by it all.
  • The opposite 20% are horrified by it, unsure how to proceed, but sure the opposition is a lost cause.
  • The last, opposite 10% are consumed by creating fake news to counter just the fake news. As opposed to more effective activities that might change minds.

The result, basically, is that the central 80% are frozen in cement, unable to find any justification to change their minds. This is like a war, where destruction of the enemy is not possible; leaving the only possible defense to be a stalemate.

And that is important when the beliefs of that outside 10% are categorically ugly.

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