In regard to fake news, Stanford psychologist, Sam Wineburg said, “We are all driving cars, but none of us have licenses.” In the age of social media each individual must take personal responsibility for identifying and preventing the spread of fake news. There are three main points to consider in relation to fake news today. First, fake news can be spread by anyone, not just governments or major media sources. Second, sharing fake news, even when questioning it, can establish it as fact in people’s minds. Finally, people must take personal responsibility for what they read, believe, and share.
In the past, the “car driving,” or fake news-generating, was generally the responsibility of governments and major news corporations. Tim Bajarin, the president of Creative Strategies, makes the point that fake news in the last century tended to take the form of propaganda, a tool used by governments to spread fake or misleading information in order to gain the people’s support for government initiatives (PCMag). When governments and news corporations were the only ones sharing news it was hard for the people to determine whether it was true or not. Now, with the recent developments in technology, average people can spread any news story, true or false, with thousands of people, in a matter of seconds.
Although social media can allow for up to the minute news updates, this way of sharing news has a serious drawback. Sometimes people can accidentally share fake news stories, either through ignorance, or by posting information that has not been thoroughly vetted. For example, in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election there was a rumor that the Democratic candidate, Stacey Abrams, was going from state to state running for Governor. Soon you could find this story all over Facebook followed by an innocent comment such as “Is this true?” or, “For real?”. These types of posts stimulate the reactions of others, no matter how faulty the original “news story” is.
This creates a problem which is best summed up by MIT cognitive scientist David Rand. His idea is that of “Illusory truth,” which is the act of being exposed to something several times in order to make your brain think, “This is familiar, so it must be safe.”(Real News the Fake Crisis, Time). This causes a problem because every time someone shares a faulty post, (like in the example above) your brain inadvertently becomes subject to a piece of faulty information. Over time, posts like these can add up and cause your brain to believe almost any fake news story, no matter how far-fetched it may be.
It is not enough to show what the problem is without showing how we can take steps to fix it. Social media platforms like Facebook have tried various ways to combat fake news, but the problem really lies with people (Scientific American) . It should be the users’ responsibility to participate in what Sam Wineburg calls “lateral reading”: fact-checking news sources by looking to trusted sites and searching for other viewpoints. In regards to social media platforms, Richard Gringas (who has worked with Apple, Google, and the Public Broadcasting Service since 1979), states that, “With free expression, you get the good and the bad… and hopefully you have a society that can distinguish between the two.” It is only by critical evaluation that individuals can establish the line between fake and legitimate news.
It is clear in our current era of fake news that we must take more responsibility for what we choose to share and believe. Whether it’s by understanding how it is spread, by knowing that it can be considered fact in people’s minds, or by fact checking information, we can hope that people learn to understand, and take responsibility to combat, fake news.