Is Social Media News “Real News”?

Being able to identify fake news on your social media feed is crucial to being a responsible and informed internet denizen.

When studying news sharing on social media in the UK, researchers Andrew Chadwick and Cristian Vaccari state that “due to social media people may be more likely to encounter false and misleading information on a daily basis.” The difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy news on public forums like social media has become a highly discussed and slightly disconcerting topic over the last few years.

Social media is an almost unavoidable part of our society now — but can we trust it as a news source? Below, we’re going to break down how you can differentiate between misinformation and disinformation on social media, how to identify “fake news,” and how you can keep yourself informed and protected from these tactics.

Misinformation vs. Disinformation

When looking at what constitutes “fake news” and how it gets shared on social media, there are two camps of information that you have to be keenly aware of — misinformation and disinformation. Researchers at Indiana University found these two types of information often go viral because “information overload and finite attention span of users limit the capacity of social media to discriminate information on the basis of quality.”

Because social media is a public platform, anyone — including news outlets — can post anything without being accountable for fact-checking. That’s why it’s important for you as a user to be able to identify misinformation vs. disinformation in your newsfeed.

Misinformation

In the same study from Indiana University, misinformation is classified as “false or misleading content including hoaxes, conspiracy theories, fabricated reports, click-bait headlines, and even satire.” However, with misinformation, the intent of the creator is what matters more than the channels used. In many cases of misinformation, the intent is not to be deliberately deceiving, but rather to shape or change public opinion on a given topic. Due to this, misinformation may be potentially less harmful, but could also reach a wider audience.

Disinformation

Disinformation can use many of the same tactics as misinformation — such as hoaxes, click-bait, and fabricated reports — however, the intent with disinformation is to willfully deceive. Chadwick and Vaccari found during the study of UK news sharers that 24.8% of their respondents shared a news story they either thought was made up when they saw it or knew that it was exaggerated. There can be a variety of reasons that individual social media accounts or even business accounts, will spread disinformation — it could be to increase their social media marketing effectiveness, their online traffic, build more followers for their page or business, or create an emotional response or distraction.

Disinformation can be dangerous in news on social media because, as stated previously, the sheer amount of information and length of attention span on social media can cause it to go unchecked.

How to Identify Fake News

Depending on what type of account you have, the ways that you can identify fake news can change.

Personal Accounts

With a personal account, asking questions and doing your own research is crucial when identifying fake news in your feed. A lot of social media platform algorithms are designed for optimized user retention and engagement, so there’s a limit to how much misinformation or disinformation the algorithm is reading for. A few questions that can help you identify fake news on your own are:

  • Does the poster have emotional or professional stakes in these claims?
  • What is their content asking you to focus on?
  • Is this information reasonable?
  • Is it reputable, or does it cite reputable information?
  • Why is it valuable to the poster?

Business or Professional Accounts

With a business or professional account, your focus is more likely to be audience-centered than personal. Professional social media pages should ideally be informative about your business’s goals and values, while being accessible and generally inoffensive to any potential or current customers. The questions above can help you make a decision about the quality of the content you’re seeing, but you should also ask:

  • How am I serving my audience?
  • Will this alienate anyone in my core market?
  • How does this reflect on my business’s reputation or values?
  • Is this timely or relevant to my clientele?

Falling victim to misinformation or fake news with a professional or business account can have serious consequences, so being thorough and cautious before you post can go a long way.

Examples of Fake News on Social Media

Business Insider ran a report of the 10 most-viewed fake news stories on Facebook in 2019. Since these stories made the rounds on Facebook they have been debunked, but we can use them as an example to practice investigative questioning of news articles and the accounts they’re posted from.

The fake news article that ranked number one on this list is titled, “Trump’s grandfather was a pimp and tax evader; his father a member of the KKK." Right away, we can tell that this headline is trying to evoke a strong emotional reaction by using powerfully charged words like “Trump,” “pimp,” “tax evader,” and “KKK.”

The account that posted this article, @ImpeachTrump, also has a visibly vested interest in creating a negative narrative around the president. Based on these factors, users be aware that the goal of the poster could be to spread disgust about the president to lend legitimacy to their beliefs.

It’s also important to note, the article itself lists only one outside source to back up its claims, that source being the Canadian Broadcast Channel (CBC). This source, while reputable, may not be the most authoritative source to use when speaking about the American president. Following this investigative train of thought, an informed social media user could identify this article as misinformation. While some of its claims are true — the president does come from a wealthy family, which the article claims — and the poster may believe them, the intent of this article, and the reason @ImpeachTrump posted it is likely to sway public opinion about the character of the president.

How to Combat Fake News on Social Media

Combating fake news on social media comes down to an understanding of the goals of not only fellow posters online, but of the social media platform itself. Social media platforms make money by selling user data to ad companies, which is why you’ll often see ads tailored to your interests or search history.

This is important to know for those operating both personal and business accounts on social media. As an individual, being cognizant that any news you see on your feed is first passed through a filter based on previously collected data can help you be more responsible and conscious of inherent bias when you share news online. If you represent a business using social media as a marketing platform, it’s important for you to keep your posts consistent with your brand, and only share things on your timeline that build positive customer relationships, line-up with your values, or showcase original content.

Fake news on social media can seem unavoidable. The best way to fight this is to maintain a healthy level of curiosity for the things you read on your feed, have an understanding of how social media platforms curate the things you see, and use investigative practices liberally. Social media can be a very powerful tool, for both businesses and individuals when used with the understanding that it is not infallible.