Image of a woman sitting in bed looking at a computer, in an article about fake news.

How Fake News Became So Widespread and How To Put a Stop to It

Many people are now relying on social media as their news sources, where misinformation spreads as fast as wildfire.
September 10, 2020
9 mins read

“This baby is 5 minutes old,” the ominous white-on-black text reads, referring to a pitiful newborn. Below this image sits another, one of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominees for president and vice president. “They both voted and agreed that it’s okay to kill this child 6 minutes earlier,” more text reveals. “And even if the child survived the abortion, they also voted to still kill it.” At this point, every Christian Facebook mom is about to combust, without realizing that it’s all fake news.

Stupid memes like this have power. Not only are they able to spread widely on Facebook and beyond, but they can also easily influence how people understand the world around them. Think about it — where do people form and share opinions? How many actually read the news?

How Fake News Emerged

As of last month, only 6.5 million people subscribed to The New York Times. About 2 million received The Washington Post, according to Nieman Lab, since the Post does not report its subscription figures. The Wall Street Journal’s subscriber count is around 2 million as well, and USA Today reported 7 million daily readers as of 2014.

Compare that to Facebook’s bloated traffic. During the second quarter of 2020, nearly 2 billion daily active users were recorded on the platform, with over 2.7 billion monthly active users. That means 4 to 5 billion eyes were glued to images of endangered fetuses and conspiracies circulated by QAnon, the infamous cult and domestic terrorist threat.

A clear hypocrisy has unveiled itself with the emergence of social media — the public neglects the press while eagerly sharing political, news-related and often false messages online. Truth is second to sensationalism, and it’s incredibly dangerous to a democracy.

So is COVID-19, as the last few months have shown. But this latter issue, while deeply entwined with fake news, has a more immediate solution, which is a vaccine. Is there even a practical solution for the infodemic?

Is There a Solution to Fake News?

Some, in hypothesizing the most effective avenue to cast the demons of the internet into an impermeable dungeon, may suggest reporting individual memes or the users that proliferate them to social media administrators. Doing so may bring attention to which accounts are more responsible than others, and this sort of action could even result in policy changes down the road. Perhaps the easiest cure is a form of cancel culture.

I’ve tried this myself. For a few days last month, whenever I noticed something phony on social media, I would comment on the post, often linking a website that debunked the claim of interest or direct message the user to voice my complaints. Neither approach was super effective, nor did they require much effort.

Those endeavors, which require little personal involvement, are often the least effective over the long-term. Fake news is a national and international issue that requires millions of people to notice misinformation when they see it. Such a task is far from a piece of cake, but a piece of one’s mind has only a temporary impact.

The removal of a single image or the restrictions placed on one user is not going to stop other people from sharing similarly egregious iconography. Facebook cannot disable everyone’s accounts.

Perhaps the issue cannot be resolved through call-outs alone, but the foundation of this approach provides a philosophy that can be translated into different forms of activism. Cancel culture is many things, but it is not tone-deaf. It understands the zeitgeist of a society, the context in which words, actions and people find themselves.

Its code of conduct demands immediate action taken to address the discrepancy between these latter figures and where the world stands currently. Such a thought process is critical to ameliorating the damage of disinformation, even if it doesn’t prescribe shunning individuals or posts on a case-by-case basis.

In order to address fake news, what we need is a culture shift. This has less to do with targeting those who step out of line with what is politically correct, and is more about fostering a civil discussion of what it means to be well-informed.

Why don’t more people subscribe to reliable news sources? Well, plenty of Americans find the press politically biased, for one, and when the president repudiates news organizations as a whole, those who were already uncertain become deeply disillusioned with the motives of established publications and networks.

As with many things throughout these trying times, from the coronavirus to racial injustice and the spread of fake news, the best way to develop long-lasting change is to start small.

What You Can Do About It

How many of your family members or friends have shared something dubious on social media? Why did they do that? What made them want to put that out in the world? Asking those questions is the beginning of something quite powerful indeed.

Sit your loved ones down in a room or Zoom meeting. If you know someone in your circle is also an opponent of fake news, try collaborating on a plan so it’s not just you talking to all of these people. Establish why you both felt the need for this discussion.

Maybe it’s because of the election, or that you’re worried about the health of your community. Regardless of the reason, state it clearly and be transparent. Treat the occasion like an intervention, not a hostage situation.

Share what’s on your mind, whatever it is. Still, as hard as it may be, do not call out certain people for believing in PizzaGate or thinking Kamala Harris is not Black. Instead, ask each person about what forms of media they consume, whether they know its reputation or who started it and why they think it’s worthy of their attention.

That one-word question, “Why?” could make a world of difference, and you may be surprised how people react. Local initiatives like this strengthen a sense of community while foregrounding the impact of media consumption.

Of course, greater actions could be taken to foster this culture even more. Perhaps a forum should be created for people to voice their positive relationships with news publications, or a rewards program through social media that gives back to those who choose to read reliable media outlets. People need to see tangible benefits to being well-informed beyond the abstract.

Regardless of its form, the cultivation of a society that values facts over fiction can dismount the tyranny of fake news and initiate a much-needed regime change. Maybe then people will stop screaming about sleepy Joe or crooked Hillary and instead see the humanity of words. Then people can decide for themselves when that quality is absent in the outlets they patronize.

Chase Cutarelli, Columbia University

Writer Profile

Chase Cutarelli

Columbia University
Creative Writing

Chase is a rising sophomore at Columbia University studying English and computer science. In his free time, he enjoys reading, learning new languages, and ballroom dancing.

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