Social Media Facilitates the Spread of “Fake News”

Politically-motivated claims are made without any factual evidence and photographs and videos are taken out of context, allowing fake news to spread on social media platforms and then receive coverage by journalists.

The country’s divisiveness and toxic rhetoric have seeped into social media and more legitimate news outlets, where “fake news” is mislabeled as truth. Photographs and videos are frequently taken out of context and described inaccurately to promote a certain agenda, which misleads the public and results in the swift spread of misinformation across online platforms. On sites like Twitter and Facebook, anyone can share their opinion and pass it off as fact, and often, by the time a claim is “fact-checked,” it has already circulated so widely that the truth no longer matters. This spread of inaccurate information is exemplified by the coverage of the caravan of migrants fleeing violence and poverty in Central America to seek political asylum in the United States.

Conspiracy theories benefit tremendously from social media platforms like Twitter, where a far-out claim can catch on and spread. One glaringly false conspiracy surrounding the caravan purported that George Soros, a prominent liberal billionaire, is personally funding and encouraging the migrants. On October 17th, Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman, posted a video on Twitter that he claimed depicted people in Honduras paying migrants and suggested that Soros may be to blame.

The video was actually shot in Guatemala and there is no evidence that Soros funded migrants, but by the time Gaetz corrected his mistake, it had already received thousands of views and retweets by various conservative figures, including Donald Trump, Jr. and President Trump himself.

Cable news outlets provided a platform for the conspiracy theory to reach more ears. Any attention — even from critics debunking a blatant lie — can provide fodder for fake news.

On October 22nd without any credible support, Trump tweeted that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the caravan.

The claim was later proven to be false and refuted repeatedly — even by officials in Trump’s administration. However, at that point, the lie had already spread across Twitter and received significant airtime and credence on cable news programs like Fox & Friends. By playing into nativist tendencies, Trump’s tweet resonated with many members of the public, who were unwilling to treat it as fake news.

Images have also been used inappropriately and out of context to stoke fears of the migrant caravan. Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist, shared a post with images of bloodied and beaten Mexican policeman, claiming that these photos depicted the brutality of the caravan.

However, according to Snopes, a fact-checking website, the prominent photograph of the beaten policeman is six years old and was taken during Mexican student protests. Despite attempts to avoid a repeat of what happened during the 2016 presidential election — in which Facebook and Twitter became platforms for the rampant spread of disinformation — this inaccurately labeled post was shared thousands and thousands of times.

In fact, little seems to have changed since the 2016 election. According to a report by the Knight Foundation, more than 80% of the Twitter accounts that shared links to phony news reports and conspiracy theories during the 2016 election are still active.

Many late-night talk show hosts and journalists for cable news networks upload portions of their shows on YouTube for the general public. On October 22nd, CNN’s Don Lemon focused on Trump’s tweet in a monologue, explaining that Trump’s claims of “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” and “very bad people” in the caravan are unsubstantiated and lack even a shred of evidence.

Lemon highlights how the President’s claims are amplified by individuals on Fox News, providing evidence with an embedded a clip from Fox & Friends. One Fox News anchor does return to the facts by pointing out that there are no facts to support the idea that the caravan is made up of anyone other than Central American refugees.

The lies surrounding the caravan continued to expand and morph in the following days. On October 29th, the spread of misinformation exploded after President Trump likened the migrant caravan to an “invasion.”

Based on what is known about the caravan of men, women, and children planning to apply for asylum, this is an exaggeration. By definition, invasions are armed, organized, and intend to take control through the use of force — there is no evidence that the caravan fits these criteria or that presents a security threat to the United States. However, after Trump’s tweet, the term “invasion” was suddenly trending.

On thousands of Twitter and Facebook posts as well as on Fox News in the days leading up to the midterm elections, the “invading” caravan received heavy coverage and reinforced the misinformed notion that the refugees are orchestrating an invasion of the U.S. border.

Journalistic outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have responded to President Trump and his administration’s claims about the caravan by publishing fact-checking videos and articles.

In this video, The Washington Post debunks four claims using a cartoon Pinocchio’s nose to represent the degree of falseness. The video uses a split-screen with clips of President Trump and Vice President Pence addressing the press and public paired with a factual statement about what is actually known. All four claims are discredited. This video exists as a response to fake news that spread on Twitter, Facebook, and social media and was picked up by news outlets like Fox News. Encouragingly, it demonstrates the potential for online videos to separate facts from lies.

Although social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, by their very nature, entertain conspiracy theories and provide a means for disinformation to spread, journalists also use online media to attempt to debunk lies and separate fact from fiction. Unfortunately, any coverage — whether critical or supportive — of unsubstantiated claims perpetuates them. The recent caravan coverage, seemingly created to mobilize President Trump’s base and distract from more legitimate issues, has ended — not because the caravan arrived, but because the midterm elections are behind us.

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