Fake News and Media Literacy in Social Media

In the recent election of businessman Donald Trump to the American presidency, the media has been engaged in this political process in a manner without precedent. With the establishment of using the social media website like Twitter and Facebook, as the primary means of communicating to the public, eschewing traditional forms of presidential communication such as the press conference, information has been doled out through 140 lettered bites of generally opinionated rather than factual data. The exclusivity of this technological viaduct has been a root cause of popular progressive disengagement from the political process and larger sectors of the national electorate. This is an enormous demographic, and it demonstrates the power of social media in young people’s lives. In the wake of the tumultuous 2016 Presidential election, there has been a lot of anxiety about the role of social media and its ability to disseminate ‘fake news’ through services like Facebook. However, the more pressing threat to the democratic process are institutional failures, not technology or the rise of social media. As Daniel Kriess points out in his article, “Social Media Did Not Give Us Donald Trump and it is Not Weakening Democracy,” the spread of ‘fake news’ and fabricated stories about political issues is a symptom of a much larger problem, not a cause in itself. Social media is just that: a medium for communication. And while ‘the medium is the message’ still rings true, it is important to keep in mind that it is the social conditions and culture that lead to the dissemination of false information via social networking, not the technology itself. Media literacy is a huge part of that discussion, because the ability to think critically and to read objectively is the first line of defense against the rising tide of racism, intolerance, and the belief that we are now living in a ‘post-fact’ world. The hegemony and ideology that the society and authorities provided to us actually determined the kind of news one saw, because of the ability to filter information that contradicted one’s predetermined worldview (Lee). It is crucial that young people learn how to interpret information through a theoretical lens.

The role of social media deserves in-depth attention because in the case of the 2016 presidential election, it served in unprecedented roles, with pronounced impact on the results and the aftermath. As Google trends analysis noted, the online engagement with candidate Trump exceeded comparable public interest in candidate Clinton by a 3:1 ratio. In light of his utility of the medium, Donald Trump numbered 4 million more Twitter followers than Hillary Clinton. The creation of such an information funnel led to an unprecedented drop in public trust of mass media to its nadir in the history of Gallup polls. Trump invested nearly his entire advertising budget on digital self-promotion, consonant with data he followed religiously, such as the fact that according to research at UCLA and Stanford University nearly half of television viewers did not bother to watch campaign commercials, one of the primary advertising mediums used by Clinton.

Moreover, according to Pew research, heavy social media users tend more toward political illiteracy, with eight out of 10 reporting they simply ignored political posts they disagreed with, rather than engage with them in healthy debate. On this point, Dr. Laeeq Khan, Director of the Social Media Analytics Lab, at Ohio University observed that the inherent jeopardy of this neo-realist form of social media usage has challenged the entire notion of “media coverage” by limitation in information flow and reduction of massive numbers within the population, to an ‘echo chamber of like-minded voices.’

In the wake of such a media strategy, the question arises: what role did traditional media forms, play in the recent national election? In accord with normative media theory, the entire ‘event’ of the campaign and election had new moral undertones. As Siebert et. al. argues in the 1956 classic work, “Four Theories of the Press”, to thrive the press and other media viaducts naturally orients themselves to the ‘basic beliefs and assumptions that society holds’. However, when the media form interferes with the fluid communication of ethical information, reliability and public trust are at issue.

In the wake of these political events, traditional media which was largely pushed into a responsorial and often adversarial mode with an approval rating of only19 percent according to NBC News/Wall Street Journal, while the Associated Press reported that Americans with high confidence in the media hit a dangerous low of a mere 6 percent. When we conjoin these facts with the fact that Clinton’s national newspaper endorsements exceeded Trump’s by a ratio of more than 28-to-1 and that according to the Huffington Post, Clinton would win by a margin of 98%, the disconnect between traditional media, the President-Elect and the general public is evident and foreboding for the future.