The Impact of Domestic Disinformation on Mass Communication

In the age of fake news, most assume it is coming from third-party foreign nationals (ex: the Russian intervention in the 2016 election). This however, is unfortunately not the case. One of the biggest threats to our free speech and democracy today is the misuse of the media and a major group of offenders are people who live and work here in the United States. In a recent New York Times article, Made and Distributed in the U.S.A.: Online Disinformation, Sheera Frenkel discusses the newest problem we face regarding the spread of false information.

Today’s disinformation is not from foreign groups looking to change the shape of our country’s political future, or by individuals in poor countries trying to make money off of clickbait. Instead, it comes from groups that have created entire fake news networks and have brought these networks onto social media. Last Thursday, Facebook identified and removed 559 pages and 291 accounts run by Americans that were looking to gain a profit through the spread of misleading content.

“turned on gold iphone 6” by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

One such account was Right Wing News. This account had over 3.1 million followers and was spreading lies this past month about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the Kavanaugh hearing. Blogger John Hawkins, who runs the site, has created many false Facebook profiles and pages over the past year in which he reposts the content on from his main Right Wing News profile to make it appear as though more people follow and support the ideas than actually do. These accounts are called sock puppets and go against Facebook’s user agreement. The idea is to create enough that you sway public opinion and make readers feel as though they are on the wrong side of an issue because so many people seem to be agreeing with each other. This is accomplished by posting and then having multiple fake accounts comment, like, and share the post, giving it more mainstream attention and credibility.

Sock puppets are detrimental to an online community because they make it significantly harder for people to determine what is true and what is not. They give credibility to something that very few people may actually agree with and can sway people’s opinions. For example, one post by Right Wing News stated Dr. Ford’s lawyers were bribed by Democrats. While this turned out to be untrue, the amount of sock puppets who interacted with the account made it more popular and a lot of people saw it on their feed. This ultimately can change opinions of Dr. Ford and her testimony if enough people see it. When a post has 3.1 million shares or likes, people are less likely to scrutinize it and do the research than one that has 500 shares.

“woman reading newspaper” by rawpixel on Unsplash

Why would someone do this? There are two reasons. First, by creating a controversial headline and sharing it across multiple platforms, they guarantee a lot of clicks which will being the reader to an ad-filled website. Every time someone clicks the link and sees the ads, the writer makes money. The second is the spread of disinformation helps their own agenda. The people at Right Wing News for example, would not be spreading these lies if it did not further their political values.

It is important to note that this is not just an issue with right-wing news outlets but also with more liberal accounts. Facebook also removed two left-wing news outlets. Resistance, which had 240,000 followers and Reverb which had 816,000 followers. While these numbers pale in comparison to Right Wing News’s 3.1 million followers, it is still important to recognize that this is not a one-sided issue. Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security, said the majority of issues they face is with domestic, not foreign, accounts. They are also struggling to take down these accounts because of free speech. While individuals do have a right to say what they want it crosses a line when it begins to impact the other people on a social media network. When something is presented as fact instead of opinion, it goes from free speech to fraud. No individual should have the right to create multiple fake accounts or spread lies for their own gain.

“person's hand holding phones” by rawpixel on Unsplash

Communication has been greatly affected by this new epidemic of false media outlets. It is with this epidemic that we must examine how our social media sites are run as well as what we teach young adults who are just beginning to explore social networks. Everyone should know how to spot a fake news article or a fake website. It is a threat to our country to believe these false messages because they can sway voters opinions and can change views on certain issues without any real reasoning. When the Russians did it during the 2016 election, some considered it an act of terrorism, now Americans are being attacked by Americans and it is widely flying under the radar.