Is this how Trump won?
I’ll admit it, I’m a bit of a fact checking bully. I’m quick to discredit a story and I previously did it without regard for the person’s feelings. Often, I would just post a link to Snopes, Politifact, or some other trustworthy source of information, debunking a story that was posted. I’d occasionally plead for them to do their own fact checking before sharing a story that just sounded too good to be true, but those concerns and comments were often ignored. Confirmation bias, believing a story is true because it supports your views, is a very real problem, and those who read stories that confirmed their beliefs didn’t care that they weren’t true. Some people would rather someone tell them they’re right than actually be right.
I know what some of you may be thinking, but this wasn’t just a problem with conservatives. I noticed the same bias from my liberal friends as well, though their falsehoods were few and far between, and more frequently based loosely on fact. One of the most popular untrue stories I saw was a quote attributed to Trump, who they claimed had said he’d run as a Republican if he ever ran for president, because Republicans are idiots who would believe anything. Confirmation bias caused these people to post the story, because they just wanted to paint the idea that Republican voters were stupid, but the truth is, Trump never said that. He did, however, say he likes to grab women by their privates, and that a judge couldn’t do his job because he was of Mexican descent, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to believe that he could have said something so preposterous. The lie wasn’t far from the truth, but it was still a lie.
Fact checking is vital, and both sides of the political spectrum need to focus more on it.
If I keep speaking like this, I fall deep within the issue of false equivalence. Yes, both conservatives and liberals were posting false stories, but the liberal ones were grossly outnumbered by the conservative ones, and usually more exaggerations or memes than outright lies and false reports. Alt-right sites and far-right conservative news sites accounted for an overwhelming majority of the false news that spread over Facebook, and, from speaking with family members after the election, these false stories directly influenced their vote.
The world of politics has always been full of lies or half truths, but people should want to see through those blatant falsehoods. Now they gobble them up, eager to feed into their bipartisan views. Those people are evil, we are righteous.
According to an exceptional analysis done by Buzzfeed, false–mostly conservative–stories outpaced real stories on Facebook, and that could have changed the tide of the election.
I’ve stopped being surprised by Buzzfeed. For some time, I was skeptical when they posted an insightful or well researched piece. However, they’ve proven to be more than clickbait articles, quizzes, and humorous posts. Perhaps the only way for journalism to survive in our ad-blocked world is for well researched examples of good journalism to be surrounded by jokes and quizzes about which fast food breakfast item you are.
On election night, I watched Buzzfeed’s live coverage through the Twitter app on my Apple TV, while I rapidly refreshed the New York Times on my iPhone. That night will be forever etched into my my memory, and Buzzfeed was a part of it. Their analysis of Facebook traffic used Alexis, a site traffic tracking service, and an in-house tool, BuzzSumo, to comb through the web for stories and track the referrers. Few people outside of tech or publishing know this, but you can easily track the source of your visitors. I can see if Twitter or Facebook is directing more traffic to my site, or if using a hashtag or comical wording in a tweet changed my readership. Using tools that make this information public (anonymously), Buzzfeed was able to track not only what stories were popular, but also what stories were popular thanks to Facebook. Their results are conclusive: prior to the election, false news stories, most of them far-right, had taken over Facebook. If you don’t believe them (good, you’re learning to fact check), they’ve also shared their methods and data on their site.
The why of the lie
The desire to influence the vote, even through falsehoods, was stronger than the desire for a truthful and honest discourse. Everyone from news anchors, to your crazy uncle, to FBI director James Comey, was willing to do anything they could to ensure a Trump victory. Comey violated the Hatch Act and put his career on the line, but your friends and family members on Facebook likely didn’t go that far. They just spread fake news stories under the guise of truth because they wanted to motivate the election. Many of us sharing political stories wanted to influence voters. However, some were only willing to share stories they had either fact checked or those that came from reliable sources. Others were willing to share whatever link backed up their beliefs and pushed for their candidate. People were so blinded by the desire to win they didn’t stop to consider whether or not lying to win would be worth the price: a deceitful victory and a deceitful president.
How did this influence the election?
Trump won a claustrophobically tight victory, and actually lost the popular vote by nearly two million votes. Leading up to the election, 538 and others predicted an easy Clinton win. However, these polls have a margin of error, and Trump’s wins in swing states often fell within these small margins of error, usually around 2%. Polling errors included the fact that no one was willing to tell another human being that they supported the racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigoted candidate, but they were willing to secretly vote for him. On Facebook, they read stories that reinforced their beliefs, told them that Clinton had to be stopped, and Trump wasn’t actually a bad guy. They read stories plastered with lies. These articles, intentionally written without a care for facts, surely influenced moderate voters who believed them to be true without verifying them for themselves. As such, they believed that Trump couldn’t have done any of the terrible things he had done, that he wouldn’t do anything he said he was planning to do, but that Hillary was planning something sinister, or so says the alt-right blog post they just shared.
What was shared?
The top false story claimed that the Pope had endorsed Trump (he actually never mentioned Trump by name, but spoke against the politics of hate and divisiveness that ruled his campaign). Other articles were also clickbait, promising bombshells like, “Hillary sold weapons to ISIS,” and “Hillary’s email leaks were worse than imagined.” They even made it seem as though Hillary Clinton had a man assassinated in the fashion of the KGB, with a suicide gunshot wound to the back of the head. Mainstream stories based on facts were more liberally based, including fact checking Trump, and, shamefully, a racy photo shoot that our future First Lady did while she was a model (seriously, guys, slut shaming?). The divide was clear, the false stories made Clinton look bad, Trump look good, while the more factually based articles from mainstream sources sought to do the opposite.
What can we do?
We can be vigilant. Anytime we see something that seems to directly pander to preconceived notions, we can check it. When someone posts a correction or a fact check to one of our stories, we can edit the original post or delete it, and thank them. We can load up Google, surround quotes found in the article with quotation marks in the search bar, and track down the source of the story. Was it reputable? Is there video of the interaction? Photos? Official documents? Is the page an untrustworthy site, like Ending the Fed or Breitbart? Is it obviously partisan like Occupy Democrats? Can you find a more reliable source with softer, less partisan language?
Ok, that probably sounds like a lot of work to you. It’s what I do every time I see an article making a grandiose claim, but, as you’re reading this, you probably understand that I enjoy journalism. It’s a hobby I’ve had since childhood, and the same reason I love detective movies, spy novels, and of course, movies about journalists willing to do anything to uncover a story. It all comes down to one thing: I am passionate about finding the truth, about discerning fact. I’ve asked “Why” so much of my life that I got into the sciences, doing astronomy as a hobby, working on my own car, or learning to program computers (my bread and butter). Not everyone is so viscously inquisitive. We live in a world of news aggregation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and social networking. Surely we can automate this, right?
Yes. Yes we can.
Facebook is working to automatically flag false stories in-house. It’s too little, too late to prevent this election from being shaped by lies, but it’s not too late to ensure that in four years, Americans can trust the news they read on Facebook. My dream is a world where those who are about to share an obviously false story are nudged before they hit the share button, given a pop up that says the story has been proven false, and asks them if they’d still like to share it. Such a system would obviously have to share its sources to remain transparent and non-partisain, but surely it could help stem the flow of marketable lies. Stories that have been proven false could carry a stamp on them once posted in the news feed, so Facebook doesn’t stop people from exercising their free speech, but doesn’t allow falsehoods to carry the same weight as the truth. This would be better than Facebook’s current system. Facebook fired their human editors, allowing algorithms to share top news stories. As a result, a few of the stories found in Facebook’s own trending feed were false. The most obvious case of this happening involved a fake story about Megyn Kelly being fired by her employer, Fox News. Kelly became an enemy of Trump and the alt-right when she, a woman, had the audacity to question Donald Trump and his blatant sexism during a debate. Facebook put the false story at the top of their featured news stories before eventually realizing their mistake and removing it. Now, perhaps too late, they’re working to change their practices, so false stories don’t take presedence over real ones, as they did during this election.
The Facebook tool isn’t out yet, and the next U.S. (mid-term) election isn’t for another two years. However, we can begin working right now to reject false news, to seek out the truth. This will make fake stories less profitable, garner less clicks, and, as a result, people will work on them less. That obviously won’t be enough. Worldwide, people are looking for comfort and validation, and they find this when their own views are validated through stories they’ve read online. The desire for truth is being outweighed by validation and the addictive nature of hate. What we can do now is try our best to correct falsehoods gently. I know I’ve been far too harsh with people on the matter of fake stories, but rather than simply sharing a link or story where the falsehoods are proven to be untrue, share that you understand where the person is coming from before fact checking them. A fact check isn’t the same as a hip check in hockey, it need not be harsh. Before you get accused of charging (yes, another hockey metaphor), remember that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar (thus ends the hockey metaphors). Be gentle, be kind, remember that they’re scared too. Perhaps for less obvious, or less factually based reasons, but that doesn’t change how they feel. You wouldn’t shout at a frightened person, even if their reasoning for being scared was silly or foolish, and we need to remember not to do the same on social media. We can increase a positive perception of the truth and science ourselves, without forcing it upon our terrified victims.
We’re all in this together now, and many of us are scared. But if we want peace, we need not prepare for war, we only need to use facts to bridge the divide.