The Great Divide

To answer “How did we get here?” post-election it’s important to look at the way we get information, starting with the internet

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

Illustrator: Taylor Daniels

With the post-election outrage on both sides in and outside of social media, it has become clear that political divisions between us are greater than they ever have been and are only getting worse. Social media sites have only added to this divisiveness because while they help news disseminate, they spread fake news and can create isolated bubbles of opinions. The public and news media also placed heavy weight on poll results as a way to form their own opinions and turned their attention away from the issues being reported on.

Clearly we need to be more diligent at monitoring what information is put out there for consumption and consider their effects, but what can we do about it?

Fake News:

For most of the last century, people got their news through what was essentially a one-way street. Regional radio, TV networks, and regional newspapers supplied information to all of the United States.

The rise of the internet made people’s opinions easier to access, and now readers can sort through millions of content-options, including false and misleading articles from both sides of the political spectrum like Breitbart or Occupy Democrats.

“The media environment online is so competitive; news organizations are under pressure to get clicks and build an audience,” said Benjamin Toff, a research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. “That makes it all the more essential that users of social media don’t fall into the trap of fake news.”

Whether it comes from ignorance, a lack of media literacy, or a desire to believe in their personal perspective, some media consumers see the misleading information as fact and spread it as such.

According to NPR, a fake news story titled, “”FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” was shared over half a million times on Facebook.

Christopher Ison teaches a variety of journalism courses at the University of Minnesota, including Mass Media Ethics. He believes that the breadth of news options gives readers an added responsibility to make sure what they’re consuming is fact, not fiction.

“The reader has a responsibility now, and the challenge is to wade through and filter through all the junk, and all the bad information, and poorly sourced information, and find sources of news that are responsible and legitimate,” Ison said.

Social Media’s Role:

Twitter and Facebook users can organize and access the news and opinions they want to see in unprecedented ways. Not only does this stifle diversity in opinion and create stronger echo chambers for users, it also allows fake news to proliferate and thrive. Misleading information is easy to disguise and easy to access. In the Facebook News Feed, fake news and real news look the same.

“As social media users, we have a tendency to trust our friends and family, and that results in the spread and trust in fake news,” said University of Minnesota journalism professor Valerie Belair-Gagnon. “As users, we tend not to hold these social media firms accountable for spreading fake news and degrading online conversations (that also spread offline).”

While it is much of the individual’s responsibility to determine the credibility of what they are reading, social media companies should be diligent in examining what gets posted to their sites.

“To the extent that social media outlets can filter out some of that for us as much as possible, they should do it. It’s in their interest to do it. People don’t want to go to places where they’re fooled, at least I hope not,” Ison said.

President Obama specifically called out the fake news problem the night before the election, mentioning Facebook in particular. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seemed shocked by accusations that his site has been a hub of fake news. Zuckerberg released a post-election statement saying it was “a pretty crazy idea” that fake news on Facebook influenced the election, defending the “diversity” of information that users see.

“I think the social media sites have a responsibility too, to the extent that Facebook can filter out fake news,” Ison said. “They certainly have the resources to do more than they do now; they need to accept that they have responsibility for this.”

Social media networks are still very new, and people will need to continue to learn more and more about their effects and power.

“I like to hope that the public gets better at identifying what’s real and what not. We just have to be constantly media literate in order to filter that junk out, and it’s a constant process. It takes real energy and commitment to be well informed,” Ison said. “Nobody should be in the business of allowing lies and made up information to proliferate on their site.”

Roles of the Polls

In addition to the proliferation of fake news on social media, the heavy news coverage of poll results through both conventional news and social media beat out a lot of news on the issues of the election in respect to coverage.

According to many polls for this election, throughout a variety of news media, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election. Huffington Post predicted her chance of winning at 98 percent, while the New York Times’ Upshot forecasted Clinton’s chance of winning at 84 percent right before the election. Toff believes that these expectations affected reporting throughout the United States.

“I do think the fact that the polls and the forecasting websites so consistently showed Clinton winning meant that most reporters covering the election did so expecting that result,” said Toff.

Despite social media being a hotspot for the aggregation of fake news, it can be a useful watchdog tool. Social media can help journalists and readers stay current with the most up-to-date corrections, updates, and changes, especially with regards to the polls.

“The good thing is there are some amazing resources out there to help readers and journalists make sense of the available data that’s out there and sort out which pollsters are reputable, which are not, and why,” said Toff.  “Many of these people are also on Twitter and regularly analyze poll results in the news. This is one aspect of social media that can actually potentially help improve coverage of the polls.”

Toff suggested to look at the Twitter accounts of Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Nate Cohn of the New York Times, Mark Blumenthal of Survey Monkey, and Doug Rivers of YouGov to start.

Toff said that even when people were getting their news from reputable sources, a lot of those sources were relying on polls and polling averages to report what was going on before the election. This reliance on the polls to report what was going on pushed a lot of stories on the issues of the election under the rug. Polls weren’t the full story.

“Journalists must also be mindful of the fact that polls are just snapshots of the electorate at a moment in time, so even if results show a 4-point race right now that doesn’t mean it will stay that way by election day,” said Toff.

It’s also possible that more than a few voters stayed home or voted for third party candidates because they, too, thought Hillary Clinton had the election wrapped up.

How do we get our information going forward?

It’s unclear whether Facebook or Twitter will implement new policies to alleviate issues with the spreading of fake news. Until that point, readers must do their best to find reputable sources. Belair-Gagnon said that is a strong source for people to find legitimate sources. The nonprofit organization offers quick reference resources, case studies, and best practice recommendations for finding reputable news.

Belair-Gagnon goes back to a project she did with her Mass Media and Pop Culture course when discussing social media bubbles. What she found was one small step of many necessary to decrease the political divide cultivated through the internet on both sides of the spectrum.

“We found that the best way to understand our filter bubble is to be aware of what exists outside of it, and make a conscious effort to expose yourself to other viewpoints in the media ecosystem (within and outside of the United States).”

Ison Sidebar – Media Literacy

Media literacy is proving to be an increasingly necessary skill to have in order to be a fully informed citizen.

“Just like schools taught students about the difference between primary and secondary sources when they do research for a paper, they have to teach students how to be critical thinkers of all their sources of information out there,” Ison said.

Here are some questions Ison said readers should ask when trying to make a good judgement call on a media organization:

  • Do they have trained journalists and trained editors?
  • Do you see legitimate efforts to present the best arguments for both sides of an issue?
  • Do they do original reporting or do they steal other kinds of reporting?
  • Do they use a diversity of sources when they provide different perspectives on issues?
  • Do they name their sources, whether it’s a person or a sort of public record?
  • How well do they correct their mistakes, if at all?

By asking these questions, the public can determine the credibility of a source before they let the news hold places of power and influence.