Is there really a root that can cure 98 percent of all cancer cells in 48 hours? Not likely, but a member of the Maine Legislature thinks it’s true. The lawmaker shared this ridiculous claim on Facebook, with the comment “Awesome!”
Welcome to the world of fake news.
This Facebook post reminded me of a meeting I staffed at the State House some years ago. Somehow, one of Gov. Paul LePage’s “Sovereign Citizen” friends managed to get a meeting with both the House speaker and the Senate president. Long-haired, wild-eyed, and denim-clad, the gentleman spent 30 minutes describing layers and layers of U.N.-led conspiracy, all backed up with mountains of papers shoved into file folders. When one of the participants in the meeting asked politely, “Are you sure this is true?”, the response was profound: “Absolutely! I found it on the internet!”
It’s remarkable that grown-ups need to be reminded not to believe everything they read online. But it’s become a massive problem, and it’s impacting our politics and public discourse at the highest levels. And as the miracle cancer root post confirms, it’s not just conspiracy theorists that are spreading this nonsense anymore.
News consumers are believing and spreading false stories at a breakneck pace. Much of this is driven by so-called “clickbait” sites that make money every time someone clicks on a story. But it’s important to understand that these clickbait sites only work because of the people who fall for their fake stories. As the public has increasingly turned to news sources that confirm our own points of view, we’ve become less able to discern fact from fiction.
It’s called “confirmation bias,” and we’re all guilty of it to some degree. When we hear something we already suspect to be true, we scrutinize it less. This is at least part of the reason nonsense news stories are so viral — the people who share them suspend their disbelief because they actually want them to be true.
This phenomenon is getting worse as consumers increasingly turn to self-affirming news sources.
Watching only Fox News as a conservative, or only MSNBC as a liberal, distorts reality. And as competitors, partisan news outlets like these teach their audiences not to trust other sources. For the most part, these high-profile but slanted news outlets try to maintain some degree of journalistic integrity. But the success of the partisan media model has driven consumers into tighter and tighter ideological silos, and this is where things have gotten out of control.
During the 2016 election, many people began to get their information from shady fake news websites that target consumers based on their political beliefs. For profit or for political gain, fake news was fed to millions of people who had locked themselves into these narrow consumer groups. Reality, for millions of American voters, was just plain wrong.
And now politicians are learning to leverage these narrow-band information consumers as well.
In Maine, LePage depends on this dynamic to push false narratives about Maine’s economy, our opiate crisis, and a host of other topics to an audience of followers who have been taught to distrust anyone but the governor himself. And now that the White House is offering the concept of “alternative facts” as a legitimate explanation for their own misinformation campaigns, siloed news consumption comes with even greater risk.
There’s been chatter from the heads of companies such as Facebook about trying to fix the fake news problem. But the world of social media is too complicated to fact check everything that’s published. And trying to balance freedom of speech with a final determination of truth on any particular subject would be like opening Pandora’s box.
There’s no easy solution to this problem from the producer end. But on the consumer end, the answer is clear: Stop plugging your brains into one media source.
This should be a natural act.
Just as we do in our social worlds, we need to gather information from multiple sources, weigh their biases and trustworthiness, and piece together our worldviews with suitable grains of salt applied to all our inputs. And remember that every source you consume news from has an agenda — either political or financial. There is no such thing as unbiased news.
It’s scary that fake news has a legislator believing that a miracle root will cure cancer in 48 hours, especially when there’s so much work the Legislature needs to do to actually help sick people. But this example shows how truly imperative it is for all of us to change our attitudes toward information consumption. We now have a social responsibility to become a more conscious audience, and keep ourselves from being part of the fake news epidemic.