Sharing the Blame for Sharing False News

Two women talking to each other
Gossip by Kamyar Adl  (CC BY 2.0)

We can’t put all the blame on Facebook and Google for fake news stories when we are the ones who share them without a second thought.

As the news media grope around for someone to blame for the outcome of the US election, they have included social media in their accusatory gaze. Facebook and Google have been blamed for inadvertently spreading false information that ultimately changed the course of the US election.

I suppose it is a way of deflecting some of the opprobrium that falls to the traditional news sources. However, today we learned that both Facebook and Google are going to try to prevent fake news sources from benefitting from their services, and that is a good thing.

Certainly, there is enough blame to go around, and I take my share. I have sometimes posted news stories and pithy quotations that appeal to my political leanings and that bolster my sense of self-righteousness, without actually checking to see if the source is reliable. For that I apologize.

Sometimes I cringe when I see on Facebook quotations attributed to some famous person that I know not to be the original source. I wonder if I should correct the person who posted it, or if that just makes me annoying. It’s a bit like knowing when your friend uses a homonym (such as their instead of there) but you just let it go. It’s not worth badgering someone just so you can be right. So, mostly I ignore those small errors.

Fake news, though, seems to me to be in a different category. There are organizations out there that are deliberately circulating misinformation so that they can earn revenue from advertisers.  The more we click on and share those articles, the more money they make.  They don’t care if the information we share has any truth to it. They only care that we share it. And we do, because it seems interesting, or controversial, or unbelievable. We want our friends to know about this amazing tidbit in case they might have missed it.

Sometimes we want our friends to tell us if it is true or not, and that is a big mistake. Just by posting the item we add to its circulation and hence its perceived reliability.  Like any lie, the more it is repeated the more it is believed. We have to stop doing that, folks.

From today, I am going to use Facebook only for sharing personal experiences with friends and family, and to provide links to my blog posts. When I want to promote news stories that I think should be more widely shared, I’m going to use Twitter to reach a wider but less personal audience. Even then, I will share only from news media that are known to check their sources before publishing such as the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Globe and Mail.

I already pay subscriptions to some online news sources, but I am going to add to them ProPublica that, in their own words, is “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” Being independent and non-profit is not a guarantee against bias, but it really helps. It is also important that their focus is on investigative journalism because so many media can no longer afford to do that.

We can blame our information sources for misleading us, but we can’t absolve ourselves of responsibility entirely.  If we don’t check our sources, it’s just gossip, and as the journalist Liz Smith said, “Gossip is news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” At least, that’s what I’m told.


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