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How Misinformation Spreads on Social Media

By Kelson Howerton
On February 15, 2018

Social media has become an incendiary battleground of polarized political discourse.
Photo Courtesy of Politcs as Unusual

In a time where almost everyone is carrying a smartphone, the ability to share one’s opinions on every platform imaginable is readily available. The internet allows users to get information at a moment’s notice, and social media allows that information to be shared with an individuals’ friends and followers. 

While this opens the door for an informed and engaged society where freedom of speech is paramount and intellectual debate is commonplace, the freedom of information the internet and social media provide does not often produce this desired effect. In fact, the network we hold so dear is rarely a house of truth but is rather a breeding ground for misinformation. 

This unfortunate reality was shown best in the race to the 2016 presidential election, where the phrase “fake news” rose to popularity, originally referring to the host of verifiably fake information spread around on the internet. It has taken on a new meaning now. However, these fake articles were generally deeply politicized and used shocking headlines to grab users’ attentions who were looking for controversy, or more often, validation. The same false story could be found attributed to either candidate, with neither one being truthful. 

Although trolls and those wishing to profit off this country’s deep political divide were to blame, another entirely different source was responsible for perpetuating it – you. Well, not you specifically, but average social media users are as much to blame for the spread of misinformation on their favorite platforms than those intentionally creating fake news. 

In an online landscape with as many political echo chambers as the real world, social media has become an incendiary battleground of polarized political discourse, just waiting to be exploited by those who can use confirmation bias to spin a false headline. Between following only those we agree with politically, managing our friends lists in a similar way, and the algorithms that tailor our feeds to only what we want to see, everyone on social media can be easily locked into a political echo chamber where ideas are rarely challenged, and false information easily circulates when it lines up with biases. Given the fact that most people never read past the headline, it is easy for lies to spread like wildfire. 

Sadly, this heightened spread of misinformation was not contained within the election. The Trump era has not lessened the political climate of social media, nor can the damage be repaired. Indeed, the president himself, controversial as he is, regularly engages with social media, so more eyes are on these platforms than ever. Everyone has something to say about the president’s latest tweet.

In today's retweet culture, snarky hot takes are rewarded the most on Twitter. Political postings have become one of the most popular ways of generating the most hits, and this administration seems to stir up no shortage of reactions. This has resulted in flooded newsfeeds with everyone’s reactions to breaking news and complicated issues, and when everyone and their mother is sharing their opinion, it can be hard for the truth, centered in verifiable sources, to rise to the top. 

It can be exciting to stay up to date on all the goings-on in this country and abroad, and you may want to add your opinion to the discourse on social media to feel a sense of connection with what is happening. However, sharing your opinion based on the thorough research of reading headlines or the social media posts of your friends has the potential to be more damaging than helpful to any conversation. Before sharing that article or tweeting your immediate reaction to the president’s latest actions, stop and consider whether there is a need to dig deeper first. Be opinionated but informed. Social media gives you an outlet for your voice to be heard, but make sure your voice is speaking truth, and not adding to the endless pile of lies on the internet. 

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