Social Media is Eroding Our Ability to Detect Fact

October 17, 2018

As social media has evolved over time, it has given a voice to many who seldom had one before. Twitter might be the best representation of this phenomenon, as a simple search can reveal a tweet from almost anyone. However, social media has also worsened some of society’s most problematic traits. Media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have become centered around seeking popularity over sharing facts. We post anything from photoshopped photos to fabricated numbers and statements with little hesitation, and unless you know the perpetrator well, you are left only to believe what your eyes recognize. The pursuit of alike, thumbs up, or retweet can drive the user to abandon their allegiances to reality and sever ties to the truth.

However, unknown to some, this is not limited to the sphere of celebrity. While social media has opened up a whole new way for people to access, identify, and report the facts, many news and opinion outlets have become corrupt in pursuit of popularity. For some, they will label outlandish and unproven opinions as fact and claim they are exclusively reporting the truth; others sit back, identify a target audience, and report anything that appeals to them. Admittedly, the success of these tactics says just as much about us being easily manipulated by the pursuit of popularity, as being aligned with popular opinion makes one believe they are validated. At the same time, these tactics have created an atmosphere where no source can be appropriately trusted, as while one claims fact, another accuses it of pushing an agenda.

For example, the New York Times has been the gold standard of journalism in this country for decades. Recently, the Online News Association, a coalition of online journalists and reporters, listed the New York Times in the gold standard grouping of journalism and reporting. While the group did concede it is slightly left-leaning, the reporting and content are factual and reputable. A survey done by Statista found that 50% of participants rated the Times “very accurate” or better, while only 24% said it was not reliable. Contrarily, analysis done by Punditfact shows that at least 22% of the reporting done at CNN, MSNBC, and Fox is objectively false at heart. Statista polling shows that 33% of pollers found MSNBC untrustworthy, with CNN and Fox scoring even higher. Furthermore, only MSNBC was ranked in the gold standard of reporting by the ONA.

Contrary to some beliefs, the New York Times is not failing. The company reported a record increase of nearly 43% in online subscribers in an annual cycle. Some are adamant about labeling the Times as “failing,” and they voice their statements through one medium more than any other: Twitter.

In my own Twitter research, I searched accounts who had given supported the “failing New York Times” propaganda, and with each I examined their account, searching through trends between users. About 70% of the accounts I analyzed not only had criticized the Times as untrustworthy but had posted some form of admission that they don’t/haven’t actively read the source. This trend is concerning for two potential reasons: Either the user is falsely claiming they don’t read any of the outlet’s work, or they are claiming the Times to be false without having actively read any of their content. Regardless of the reasoning, this can be traced back to a typical scenario we see across social media: The constant chase to be in the ‘popular’ grouping.

Through media like Twitter and Instagram, one looks to try and align their post with what they believe to be the popular trend. From nearly or copying the caption of a celebrities post for one’s own to how one poses or dresses in photos, we follow our cues from those at the top of the popularity hierarchy, often hoping our replications can pull one step closer to them. This falsehood extends beyond the realm of social celebrity, as we take our cues for our political expressions from those of popularities past. We echo the phrasings and statements of those we support politically like a paroquet: Often not understanding the full meaning, but with the conception that doing so better aligns you with the popular thought and action of your desired group.

So what can we do? We’re already too deep in to reverse the trend we have fallen. Besides, doing so would tear apart the fabric of modern-day society and send news outlets into chaos trying to find a new target audience, therefore creating more problems. However, instead of trying to solve it in one leap, there are ways to take small steps to rectify our misconceptions and malpractices. I’m smart enough to know that telling you how to operate online won’t change anything, but can be done is changing how you intake the news and reporting. Abandon practices of reading to confirm or disprove opinions, instead read to learn the fact. Fixate on the numbers, the quotes, and the verifiable evidence, rather than the interpretations and the commentary. Let’s go back to acknowledging the fact before spouting our opinion.

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