From Facebook to Twitter: Finding the Political Truth

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Discerning the truth in political circles is a challenge. The “fake news” to "witch hunt" to “illegitimate impeachment" narrative seems to be a Trumpian battle cry. For people whose news source is Facebook or Twitter, there could be a split along political lines highlighted by an advertising policy. Facebook may be giving new life to distortions of the truth by ostensibly permitting dishonesty in political advertising, a practice defended by CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

On the otherhand, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey @jack, on Oct. 30, 2019, took a bold stand tweeting:

"We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.

"While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions."

Zuckerberg defends its political ad policy and points to fact-checkers. However, the Columbia Journalism Review says that Facebook’s fact-checking falls short. One fundamental concern noted:

“Facebook simply doesn’t provide enough transparency or clarity on the impact of the fact-checking that its independent checkers do. How many users did the fact-checks reach? How many people clicked on the related links from a false story? Did the project slow or even halt the spread of that misinformation? Facebook doesn’t divulge enough data to even begin to answer those questions.” Columbia Journalism Review: Facebook Fact Checking Falls Short  (August 2, 2019).

Researchers have been looking at the problems created by fake news for several years. In an earlier story, I noted the following: There are at least four daunting problems with what is called fake news. 

  • Confusion about the facts
  • Susceptibility to deception
  • Fabricated stories to tarnish the image of political opponents
  • Repetition to create familiarity with fake news thereby casting doubt on the facts 

Problem One: Confusion with the facts

The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online October 19, 2017. 

"A Pew Research Center study conducted just after the 2016 election found 64% of adults believe fake news stories cause a great deal of confusion and 23% said they had shared fabricated political stories themselves—sometimes by mistake and sometimes intentionally."

Problem Two: Misinformation susceptibility

A study published in 2017 in the journal Intelligence suggests that some people may have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation. The "lingering influence" of fake news "is dependent on an individual’s level of cognitive ability," reported psychologists Jonas De Keersmaecker and Arne Roets of Ghent University: 

"Fake news: incorrect, but hard to correct: the role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions."  p.107-110.

Problem Three: Deliberately fabricated news

Writing in Scientific American, David Z. Hambrick and Madeline Marquardt on February 6, 2018 noted:

"As one alarming example, an analysis by the internet media company Buzzfeed revealed that during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the 20 most popular false election stories generated around 1.3 million more Facebook engagements—shares, reactions, and comments—than did the 20 most popular legitimate stories. The most popular fake story was “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.”  

Problem Four: The illusion factor

If something is repeated often enough, even if it is false, people perceive it as true.  For example, Trump likes to refer to the “failing New York Times." That bit of Trump manufactured fake news was clarified by Paul Glader.  An associate professor of journalism at The King’s College in New York City and a media scholar at The Berlin School of Creative Leadership, he wrote the following for Forbes, February 1,  2017.  In the article "10 Journalism Brands Where You Find Real Facts Rather Than Alternative Facts," he clarified this noting:

"…Subscriptions to the New York Times and other newspapers have picked up since Donald Trump was elected president according to the Columbia Journalism Review. . . 

"While some may criticize mainstream media outlets for a variety of sins, top outlets such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC News and the New Republic have fired journalists for such ethics violations. That is remarkable in a world where some celebrities, politicians and other realms of media (other than news… such as Hollywood films "based on a true story") can spread falsehood with impunity."

The Solution: Intellectual curiosity and credible sources 

Professor Steven Sloman is at Brown University in Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Science. His recent book, with former student, Phil Fernbach is The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Riverhead Press, 2017). He has pointed out that "this illusion of understanding emerges because people fail to distinguish what others know from what they themselves know." 

In an interview with VOX, he gave this example—animals loaded onto the ark:

"People who are more reflective are less susceptible to the illusion. There are some simple questions you can use to measure reflectivity. They tend to have this form: How many animals of each kind did Moses load onto the ark? Most people say two, but more reflective people say zero. (It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark.)

"The trick is to not only come to a conclusion, but to verify that conclusion. . . ." 

It may be time to question whether or not "fake news" and blatantly false ads are falling into the slander category and how "witch hunt" is becoming entwined with "fake news"  in an effort to distort the truth.

If you are concerned about Facebook’s commitment to the truth, you can do what I did nearly two years ago. Drop out of Facebook completely. That said, Twitter has a Donald Trump tweet problem, since he so often tweets "alternative facts" and angry rants. Might these be crossing the political advertising line?

Copyright 2019 Rita Watson

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