Fact or Fiction? Social media as news source increases spread of fake news

Research shows that social media has become the primary news source for most people. Whilst social media represents hyperconnectivity, its mechanisms allow for widespread misinformation and the rise of fake news.

With more than 3 billion users worldwide, there is no doubt social media represents a revolution in the way we communicate with one another. It may be a convenient, easy and cheap way to access information and stay up-to-date — but it is also a minefield of misinformation and fake news.

As social media has become the primary means for businesses, politicians and decision makers to reach their audiences, people are casting newspapers and traditional media aside, instead keeping themselves updated via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

In the U.S., 67 percent of survey participants say they get their news from social media in general, with 45 percent reporting getting it from Facebook alone. The situation in Europe is a little more encouraging but still gives cause for concern. In the EU, 13 percent of consumers say they stay up to date on European politics via social media, with the figure rising to 16 percent regarding domestic politics. In Sweden and Denmark, social media serves as the main source of information for 30 percent of consumers.

This is a particularly worrying problem in emerging markets such as Brazil, India and Nigeria, which are among the biggest markets for WhatsApp and social networks.

During the recent presidential elections in Brazil, a study analysed 100,000 images shared via WhatsApp and found that more than half contained misleading or flatly false information.

In India, where viral fake news has caused chaos and fatal incidents, WhatsApp is set to run TV advertisements to warn users about the problem. The campaign consists of 60-second films where characters go through real life scenarios and demonstrates how to use WhatsApp tools such as how to leave groups that could be propagating misinformation, and how to block unknown senders.

The campaign follows serious criticism of the platform from the Indian government and aims to create wider awareness about the problem ahead of the general elections to be held in India next year.

Even in developed economies and solid democracies, fake news is understood as a problem by the vast majority of the populations. Research by the European Commission showed that 85 percent of EU respondents believe fake news to be a problem in their country, with almost 83 percent perceiving false or misrepresentative information as a threat to democracy.

The underlying issue with using social media as a news source is that it blinds people to a plural discussion, says Matteo Flora, digital identity expert: “Most people are not used to looking into political debates anymore and are confined inside their own social media bubbles, always consuming the same kind of information.”

A unilateral news diet leads to unhealthy debate and alienation, so it is important to build platforms online where social media users are exposed to different views and don’t end up victims of algorithms that perpetually feed their timelines with stories only of a certain type.

The solution? Social platforms that allow multiple voices

Users are indeed not short of tools to check information themselves, but in the digital era, convenience rules, so building tools that integrate content into one single platform is an efficient and user-friendly way of tackling fake news.

“Fake news is everywhere, misleading us and building misconceptions about people and events. Because it is difficult to identify it in the first place, it is even harder to address it. In these situations, we require smart and holistic solutions that will preserve freedom of expression, privacy but also counter misleading content online,” says Stefania Barbaglio, from Right of Reply.

“Technology is able to help increase media literacy when harnessed effectively. Right of Reply is developing a series of innovative apps and platforms to allow open debate online and fight misinformation.”

In this hyperconnected society, it makes sense that the solution to misinformation on the virtual sphere is a collective effort by technology, social media companies and regulators.

As we come across problems and crises like fake news and misinformation in social media, it gives cause for deep reflection on the implications of technology in our lives. Nevertheless, such challenges can be used as a catalyst to create a better online space and build a stronger foundation for a fairer environment.

Right of Reply is a company developing innovative solutions for online reputation management, political discourse and social media communications.