Nearly one year ago, 28 year-old Edgar Welch fired three shots with his AR-15 rifle into the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in an attempt to “self-investigate” the now-debunked Pizzagate conspiracy. The theory gained popularity during the 2016 Presidential Elections, thanks to alt-right Twitter accounts speculating that the Democratic Party was linked to a pedophilic human trafficking ring. Welch told officers that he had read the story online and was attempting to free the children involved in the scheme.
This incident is an example of a nearly tragic result of fake news. The Comet Ping Pong shooting demonstrated to many Americans that fake news has real consequences, calling into question the role of social networks: whether they are helping to spread the truth or dilute it. With social media’s immense popularity, it is important to consider how these sites affect your interpretation of the news.
According to Pew Research Center, about 65% of American adults use Facebook. People assume that because a sizeable chunk of the American population gets news from social media sites like Facebook, articles on the sites would be from verified, trustworthy sources. But Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are filled with unchecked reporting, and the stories can spread like wildfire throughout millions of users checking the sites daily. Roughly half of social media users say they have shared or reposted news stories or images. During the 2016 Presidential election, Stanford researchers determined that there was 38 million shares of fake news in their social media database. Fact-checked information is extremely important in American society, and social media contributes greatly to the spread of confusion.
Social media has become incredibly popular among American teens and adults today because the sites give people the ability to openly express what they want. Opinions run rampant on social media; moms can rant about their kid’s school’s unhealthy lunches to her Facebook friends, while teens can post about their social life on their finstas, or fake instagrams. Fake news, of course, is a result of this free speech, because users can speak freely on their profiles; they can circulate distorted news easily without any repercussions.
Fake news was a topic for debate especially during the 2016 Presidential Election, with Facebook users sharing untrue articles claims, such as the Pope backing Donald Trump. Trump’s son Eric and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway shared fake news stories, showing that people in any position spread in fake news.
It is important to question how social media sites allow this to happen. Isn’t there some way to control these counterfeit stories and more correctly inform all Americans? Social media sites like Facebook are taking baby steps to address the problem. In November of 2016, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, assured users that the social networking company would allow users to identify articles they perceived as misleading or full of false news. Facebook would then not only send these links to Snopes, a reputable fact-checking website, but also prevent them from popping up on user’s timelines. Although these seem like big steps to eliminate fake news, keep in mind that the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria shooting occurred a few weeks after Zuckerberg claimed Facebook would be engaging in anti-fake-news actions.
Fake news is a challenging conflict for social media companies to solve, because of technological and ethical reasons. They do not want to constrain the free speech their users deserve. It is also difficult for their staff to oversee the millions of articles shared on their sites daily. Although it may seem impossible to reverse the wide influence of fake news, false information can be detected easily using critical thinking and deductive reasoning. Next time you read an article from Facebook or Snapchat consider the author and the validity of the site. Is it fake news?
Graphic: Taylor Donovan