Don’t Believe What You Share: The Acrobatics of Navigating Fake News on Facebook

Fake news is all around and our friends and relatives may be complicit in spreading these stories and false political propaganda on social media. The Racket spoke to Dr. Amanda Bittner, associate professor in Memorial University’s political science department about the rise in fake news as well as how we can be vigilant in stopping its spread through social media platforms.

“As individuals, [navigating fake news] can be challenging since most of us tend to trust what our friends post,” she said. Dr. Bittner suggested that we should all take the time to stop and read what we are about to share and ask ourselves if we believe this information to be true or a parody article, look at what types of people are sharing it, and whether or not the source is a homemade meme. “It’s hard [because] most of us don’t have the time required to go and do tons of research about basic gifs we’re seeing on the internet.”

The Rise and Spread of Fake News Through Social Media

In 2017, Canada’s National Observer detailed a “perfect storm” in which a “surge in fake news, the towering dominance of Facebook, Twiter and Google as de facto news platforms,” was raining down upon us in order to orchestrate sophisticated propaganda.

The administrators of Facebook pages like Justin Trudeau is an Idiot... Page 3 which as of this writing, has twenty thousand likes, seem to orchestrate this sophisticated propaganda by weaving separate details together and presenting them as if it is one thing over another. One post on the page reads, “[Trudeau] has pledged $50 million to Palestine for flood relief when NB [New Brunswick] had some of the worst flooding in decades this past spring.” This quote seems to suggest instead of providing aid to the Canadians who needed it, the Trudeau government spent it on foreign soil.

According to The Globe And Mail, Canada did indeed pledge $50 million to Palestine, or more specifically various international organizations that provide aid in the region to support women, youth, and people with disabilities and over a four-year period but makes no mention of the flood relief. Two days after the Globe And Mail’s article, CBC reported that the federal government had announced a $39 million advance payment to “NB” in order to aid in flood recovery noting that this was the largest advance payment New Brunswick has ever received for disaster assistance and that in the past, relief could take years.

The Racket reached out to the administrators of Justin Trudeau is an Idiot... Page 3 for clarification. We were curious as to where the person, persons (or bots?) behind the page obtains their information and where their sources come from, and why this is the third page in the “Justin Trudeau is an Idiot” series.

At first, the administrator was eager to help and was even apologetic for the lateness of their response. They explained this page was the third of four pages. “The first was deleted by FB [Facebook]. The second page which still operates has 90K followers. This is the 3rd page, intended to be a backup for when they delete our main page... and the 4th is a closed group page.” They assured us that all of the articles they post come from media sources and asked us to provide “one example of how [they] weaved together unrelated details”.

We were curious as to why “they” would shut the site down if all the sources were reputable and provided links to the Globe And Mail article about Palestine and the CBC article about the flood relief. We just got a “Fuck off...” from the administrator.

Fake People on Both Sides

We at The Racket also want to acknowledge that fake news comes from both sides of the political spectrum and Dr. Bittner concurred. “Fake news is not a thing of a particular ideology,” she stated. “Whether you are on the right side of the spectrum or the left side of the spectrum, lots of people generate fake news and everybody shares fake news constantly.” Odds are, if your Nan has Facebook, no matter where she resides in the country, or how conservative or liberal she may be, she, according to Dr. Bittner doesn’t have, or take the time to do the proper research before clicking that powerful “Share” button.

 Image borrowed from  imgur

Image borrowed from imgur

 Image borrowed from  Justin Trudeau is an Idiot…Page 3 … Look familiar?

Image borrowed from Justin Trudeau is an Idiot…Page 3… Look familiar?

The administrators of Facebook pages like Justin Trudeau is an Idiot... Page 3 which as of this writing, has twenty thousand likes, seem to orchestrate this sophisticated propaganda by weaving separate details together and presenting them as if it is one thing over another. One post on the page reads, “[Trudeau] has pledged $50 million to Palestine for flood relief when NB [New Brunswick] had some of the worst flooding in decades this past spring.” This quote seems to suggest instead of providing aid to the Canadians who needed it, the Trudeau government spent it on foreign soil.

According to The Globe And Mail, Canada did indeed pledge $50 million to Palestine, or more specifically various international organizations that provide aid in the region to support women, youth, and people with disabilities and over a four-year period but makes no mention of the flood relief. Two days after the Globe And Mail’s article, CBC reported that the federal government had announced a $39 million advance payment to “NB” in order to aid in flood recovery noting that this was the largest advance payment New Brunswick has ever received for disaster assistance and that in the past, relief could take years.

The Racket reached out to the administrators of Justin Trudeau is an Idiot... Page 3 for clarification. We were curious as to where the person, persons (or bots?) behind the page obtains their information and where their sources come from, and why this is the third page in the “Justin Trudeau is an Idiot” series.

At first, the administrator was eager to help and was even apologetic for the lateness of their response. They explained this page was the third of four pages. “The first was deleted by FB [Facebook]. The second page which still operates has 90K followers. This is the 3rd page, intended to be a backup for when they delete our main page... and the 4th is a closed group page.” They assured us that all of the articles they post come from media sources and asked us to provide “one example of how [they] weaved together unrelated details”.

We were curious as to why “they” would shut the site down if all the sources were reputable and provided links to the Globe And Mail article about Palestine and the CBC article about the flood relief. We just got a “Fuck off...” from the administrator.

 Even the profile picture for this page is a meme that has been used  countless times .

Even the profile picture for this page is a meme that has been used countless times.

Fake People on Both Sides

We at The Racket also want to acknowledge that fake news comes from both sides of the political spectrum and Dr. Bittner concurred. “Fake news is not a thing of a particular ideology,” she stated. “Whether you are on the right side of the spectrum or the left side of the spectrum, lots of people generate fake news and everybody shares fake news constantly.” Odds are, if your Nan has Facebook, no matter where she resides in the country, or how conservative or liberal she may be, she, according to Dr. Bittner doesn’t have, or take the time to do the proper research before clicking that powerful “Share” button.

 This meme made its way through social media in 2016 but was proven to be f ake news by a number of outlets including CNN .

This meme made its way through social media in 2016 but was proven to be fake news by a number of outlets including CNN.

Social Media’s Responsibility

This past summer, Facebook hired Canadian fact-checkers to review links and news stories being shared. Similar initiatives have already been implemented in fourteen other countries including the U.S, Germany and France. The fact-checking only applies to news stories shared on Facebook and does not cover images that carry a political message or claim to be factual so it appears that the “Justin Trudeau is an Idiot” series may fly under the radar, at least from these fact-checkers.

Dr. Bittner believes social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can and should do more. “[Things like] breastfeeding pictures are being banned left, right and center, and one could question whether that’s reasonable [when] you see memes that are sharing fake news about whatever the topic is,” she said. “That is probably more damaging than seeing an image of breasts.” She continued, “[i]f we think about the fact that most people probably don’t read any story in great depth, then those memes being shared are probably quite meaningful to a lot of us.”

If social media platforms don’t do more to combat the spread of fake news, Dr. Bittner believes we could be in trouble. “In the past, we used to say the electorate is not well-informed about politics, but they’re not misinformed about politics [either]. Increasingly I think that is not true.”

Dr. Bittner believes regulation is key. “Governments need to regulate what social media sites can and can’t do and what they are responsible for because your average person will share whatever they want,” she cautioned. “[There is] a lot more potential to expose people to random viewpoints based on no information.”

 This photo from  Justin Trudeau is an Idiot…Page 3  either doesn’t recognize that this meme is meant for Americans, or the administrators simply do not understand that the ideologies of liberal and conservative (not the lower case letters) aren’t the same as the Liberal and Conservative parties of Canada (note the capital letters). Those who shared this photo also do not seem to understand.

This photo from Justin Trudeau is an Idiot…Page 3 either doesn’t recognize that this meme is meant for Americans, or the administrators simply do not understand that the ideologies of liberal and conservative (not the lower case letters) aren’t the same as the Liberal and Conservative parties of Canada (note the capital letters). Those who shared this photo also do not seem to understand.

How Did We Get Here?

So how did we all reach this place of fake news sources? Dr. Bittner lays some of the blame on the current recipe of national news coverage that we see on channels like CBC and CNN where instead of experts discussing a topic and telling viewers why they believe it is good or bad; we are subjected to partisan political pundits debating the topic for their side. “So if you as a viewer are not able to see experts in the real news and you get no expertise in the fake news, then what information are you able to actually get?” she wondered.

“It’s a weird sort of thing where we’re all entitled to have our own opinions and we should be- but at the same time, we all want others to be more informed and we forget that we also have a responsibility to be more informed [as well], said Dr. Bittner. [But] it’s hard to find real information.”

Fakes News and Public Opinion

When asked if she believes if fake news has a hand in shaping public opinion, or at least the opinions of voters, Dr. Bittner said, “I think [fake news has] a role in strengthening opinions that already exist. [People] see garbage on the internet and [they] integrate that into their worldview.”  She believes that while the fake news being consumed may not change anyone’s mind, it can definitely crystalize currently held beliefs and suspects this is happening to many people.

“So if you’re already a hardcore conservative, or already a hardcore liberal, you’re already going to perceive the world in a particular way, and these memes, jokes, news stories, and these partial news stories, in particular, are just going to reinforce these pre-existing beliefs.”

Dr. Bittner pointed out that the news we read has always helped to crystallize what we already believe but we are now faced with so much of what she calls “quick, fast, dirty news that isn’t really news” is “a huge problem”.

 As Global News reported, this infographic has been  debunked for years , but still gets shared by social media users.

As Global News reported, this infographic has been debunked for years, but still gets shared by social media users.

How to Deal with Fake News Sharing Relatives

At the end of the day, Dr. Bittner believes that trying to convince people that news sources matter is the best thing we can do to reason with friends and relatives who share fake news. “[You could say something like] look, I know you think this, and that’s fine, but look at these reasons not to like Trudeau or Trump, or Clinton, or whoever- which are real reasons as opposed to fake ones that don’t exist,” she suggested.

This can provide for a chance to find common ground ideologically, at least for a moment, which might motivate your friend or relative to seek out real news sources. “You’re never going to convince them to think the opposite of what they think but [you can maybe] provide them with other ammunition that is based on reality and might help for at least a debate,” said Dr. Bittner.

A debate might be the best we can hope for as parties and partisans are becoming more polarized, not because they are different but because as Dr. Bittner put it, they are “playing together as teams much more strongly, and willing to co-operate less” which she said is “not healthy”.

Dr. Bittner pointed out that we are even sorting ourselves by moving into neighbourhoods with others just like us. While she doesn’t think people ask real estate agents to find them homes in liberal or conservative neighbourhoods, we do tend to live in places based on interests like the newest craft brewery or the hottest Asian restaurant. “So we self-sort that way, and eventually we’re living in bubbles that cause us to be farther apart from others that aren’t like us than we ever have been,” she said.

 

What’s Next?

Stopping short of predicting what might occur during Canada’s federal election in 2019, Dr. Bittner believes we could be in for a tumultuous time. “The lack of information is a problem,” she said. Normally elections are an information-rich time that gets citizens paying attention to elections and politics. “So in theory that is the time where you might be able to absorb more information, but if it’s more bad information and really one-sided information that’s not based on facts, it maybe is more problematic.”

For now we can all work to be more vigilant, and more civil when dealing with the spread of fake news on social media, especially when it comes from those closest to us.