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Last week I was at Skepticon 9 in beautiful Springfield, Missouri, where I gave a talk about how lies travel on social media. I like to start with a famous quote: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.” It’s oft attributed to Mark Twain, which makes me like the quote even more because Mark Twain probably never even said that, and if he did, he certainly wasn’t the first. That honor most likely goes to Jonathan Swift, who said something pretty close: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
But the sentiment is still very accurate, and social media has only given lies the opportunity to travel even faster, leaving truth in the dust.
This has been well-known for a long time now. One of the cool things about social media, including Facebook and Twitter, is how easy it makes it for scientists to gather a lot of data and analyze how people are talking to each other. And what they see again and again is that mistruths can spread rapidly around social media, but even when they’re corrected within minutes, that correction rarely actually reaches anywhere near the same number of people.
To make matters even worse, sometimes the correction only makes people believe the initial mistruth even more. Especially if the correction comes with a bit of shame — for instance, Politifact using “Pants on Fire” to describe the very worst lies of some politicians, or presidents-elect, as the case may be.
So it really comes down to stopping lies from propagating in the first place, something that’s incredibly difficult and is often made even more difficult by the marketing decisions that social media sites make. Social media sites don’t generally have a good reason to stop lies from spreading — they often make money based on whether or not you will click on something, and so they benefit from showing you whatever will make you click, regardless of if it’s true or not. And studies show that lies get clicked on more often on Facebook than truths.
That’s why Facebook has borne the brunt of people’s anger about lies spreading in the leadup to the US presidential election, since Trump campaigned almost exclusively on lies–lies about Obama’s birth certificate, lies about global warming, lies about things he’s said publicly and on record. And he won. Social media obviously isn’t entirely to blame for Trump, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t examine how it affected things.
For instance, Facebook had the ability to remove fake news stories that started trending on their platform, but they decided to stop the program when they realized that it disproportionately affected right wing sources. In other words, the majority of the misinformation was coming from conservatives, so they didn’t stop it because they didn’t want to look biased.
Facebook and Google both recently announced plans to stop fake news sites from using their ad programs, but of course that doesn’t begin to touch the direct links to these sites that trend thanks to gullible users and nefarious assholes who are exploiting them. These sites have to take responsibility for the spread of seriously damaging misinformation and tweak their algorithms, regardless of whether or not it offends the homeopaths, the psychic friends network, or the GOP.