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Why People Share Fake News

By Paul Mena

Fake news is nothing new. Discussions about “fake news” can be traced back for more than a century. However, it is clear that after the shocking rise of false news stories on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there has been a growing concern about the implications of fake news for democracy and the spread of misinformation in this digital age.

The first challenge has been to define the term “fake news.” Before the 2016 U.S. election, scholars used the term to refer to satires and parodies, studying websites like The Onion and TV shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. During the electoral season, “fake news” was used to indicate fabricated news content shared on social media platforms. And now, president Trump is using the term to criticize the press.

In my own research, I define fake news as content that looks like real news designed to deceive audiences with false information. Fabricated news contents on Facebook claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS fit with this conceptualization of fake or false news.

According to a December 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 64 percent of U.S. adults said false news stories had caused a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current events and 23 percent said they have shared a fake news story whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Why do people fall for fake news and share false contents? There is no single answer to explain the sharing of false news stories on social media. However, there are many aspects that should be considered. As I discuss in a conceptual paper presented at the 2017 AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, the constant streaming of false news stories on Facebook might exhaust some users and make them more prone to accept fake news and get confused between what is real and what is not. This confusion might be exacerbated by a number of factors, including: confirmation bias, the tendency to avoid dissenting information and seek out content that confirms our preexisting beliefs; social media algorithms that show users content similar to what they usually engage with; and echo chambers, users’ tendencies to surround themselves with people and media that enforce their views. Other factors might include lack of digital news literacy and the bandwagon effect where users believe something to be true or share certain information because others around them are doing so.

It is important to further explore and understand the effects of sharing fabricated news content on society and analyze recent verification processes that assess online content. At the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, I am studying how we can address these issues, including journalists’ perceptions of fact-checking, data verification, and how misinformation on social media can be combatted. As false content keeps spreading on social media, different approaches and multidisciplinary efforts will be needed to make sense of how fake news affects journalism, social media users and society overall.

Paul Mena is a Ph.D. student and instructor in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

Posted: June 28, 2017
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