Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2016 (1475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One of the most ubiquitous Facebook memes of the U.S. presidential election was one regarding a fake Donald Trump quote from 1998.
"If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie, and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific."
That the quote isn’t a word salad should be a tipoff it isn’t real. But I saw that meme shared dozens of times over the months leading up to the election. I commented on a few people’s Facebook pages alerting them to the fact it was a fake. On one page, someone responded to me: "Whatever, he’s still dangerous."
The "whatever" gave me pause. There’s tons of credible information from legitimate sources one can draw on to support the valid claim Trump is dangerous, but I understand why such memes on Facebook are attractive. They are easily shared and digested, and they are that way by design.
Bad information has always had ways of getting around, even before the Internet. Take a few popular misconceptions — that gum takes seven years to digest, for example, or that shaving your legs makes the hair grow back thicker, or that vaccines cause autism. Those are just three myths that were repeated and reinforced to the point that, for a while there, many people accepted them as facts.
Echo chambers — spaces in which ideas, information and beliefs are enforced through repetition and outside or opposing views are unable to penetrate — have a way of turning bad information into facts. Some have argued this week all those false, outrage-stoking Facebook articles reverberating around our digital silos played a role in Trump’s presidential victory.
This isn’t a new issue. Echo chambers pre-date social media; I believe they were formerly referred to as "small towns." Humans form echo chambers all the time, online and off, by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who share our ideas and beliefs. Echo chambers are why many people believe the statement "no one likes Nickelback" to be true when, in fact, enough people like Nickelback to support high-grossing arena tours. More seriously, echo chambers are one of the reasons why many people were blindsided by Trump’s win.
This week, the Guardian U.S. conducted an experiment in which conservative and liberal people swapped social-media feeds to get a taste of one another’s realities. Mostly, the exercise confirmed the deep chasm that exists between the right and the left, but one participant remarked: "I have to be more proactive about getting good quality content."
That’s just it. Echo chambers and fake or misleading articles, memes and infographics are not the only culprits responsible for the spread of poor and harmful information. The problem is also eroding media literacy. Accepting information that comes to us from uncredited sources is this era’s "they say." Finding out who "they" are is more critical now than ever. We’re inundated with more information from more places than we can keep up with.
Also complicating things is the fact "sponsored content" often looks indistinguishable from legitimate journalism and the fact many trusted news sources are now dabbling in news satire like the Onion. In 2013, CBC’s satirical program This is That ran a piece about the Ontario Athletic Association removing the ball from soccer. This story spread around my social media like wildfire because people thought it was true. The Onion has duped many a Facebook friend, but it’s also duped legacy media outlets — including the New York Times. Sure, some people just don’t "get" satire. But it’s more likely people are just rushing to share or retweet.
What social-media users aren’t doing enough of is questioning the source of information, particularly in content specifically designed to go viral. They certainly aren’t taking the time to fact-check it. It’s not just newsrooms "doing more with less," rushing to publish their hot takes. Everyone is rushing to publish their hot takes, but immediacy can’t come at the expense of accuracy. If we’re all going to be content publishers, then it’s up to all of us to take the time to question the source of our information and to remember open-mindedness and skepticism are not mutually exclusive.
Encouragingly, there’s some evidence to suggest the social-media wake-up call has been heard. The Times has gained 41,000 new subscribers since the presidential election.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.