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Social Media And The Need To Believe

by Peter Sucio

While it is still easy to spot the "fake news" in the checkout aisle at the grocery store, it is a lot harder online thanks to social media. The big reason is that instead of turning to the paper of record or the evening news more Americans now get their news from social media. As reported last month, according to a Pew Research Center report 55% of U.S. adults now get their news from social media either "often" or "sometimes" – an 8% percent increase from last year – and as a result, it is hard to determine facts from the fiction.

Americans aren't getting more gullible, however – we still don't believe Elvis is alive or that aliens are secretly living in Las Vegas – but it is simply harder to trust what is or is not true on Facebook and other social media services.

A new study from McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin found that social media isn't viewed as more trustworthy, but it is different than traditional media – such as TV news or news websites – because users do not choose the source of all the articles they see on social media. The report noted that instead proprietary algorithms provide targeted information with little transparency. On social media, articles come from a wide variety of sources and this can include sponsored articles, which are really paid advertisements.

Moreover, because this information is coming to a user's newsfeed it is then readily shared with friends and families, and simply put – fake news spreads more easily. The McCombs study found that 23% of social media users reported that they shared what turned out to be fake news – and that includes those who shared it accidentally as well as intentionally. In addition, more than 60% of users said that fake news then leaves them confused about what to believe!

"There are a few reasons why fake news has spread so quickly," said Patricia L. Moravec, lead author of the study and assistant professor of information, risk and operations management at McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin. "Social media connects us with others and makes it easier to share information with people. Since we no longer get our news directly from reputable sources, we are susceptible to the fake news from advertisements and social media users who create news for monetary gain."

The sharing of stories by a friend or family member can actually boost the creditability of readers. This is due to the fact that people may simply "think differently" when using social media from how they might think when watching the evening news. Why wouldn’t we want to believe a story our friends shared?

However, political affiliation had no impact on one's ability to determine what was true or false. Democrats were no more or less skeptical than Republicans when it came to determining what was news and what was not.

Instead, social media services such as Facebook muddy the waters – making it hard for those users to distinguish what is fact and what is fiction. This is because on social media, users are passively pursuing pleasure and entertainment and that can make it easier to believe the fake news.

"Research shows the hedonic mindset we are in while using social media makes it more difficult for us to think critically," Moravec added. "It makes us less likely to choose to fact-check the information we see. Then we share information without fact-checking, forwarding the responsibility of information validation along with our links."

Part of the problem too could be in how the traditional media has responded to the changing reading habits of those looking for news.

"I don't think it's about traditional media not adapting, though I do believe they could have adapted to social media sooner," said Moravec. "The primary issue is the lack of journalistic oversight of the information that is created. Traditional media would have difficulty stopping the influence of fake information sources regardless of how quickly they adapted. I believe more of the onus is on the social media platforms for enabling the disreputable sources."

Spotting Fake News

Detecting fake news on social media may not be as easy as spotting the outlandish headline in the grocery aisle, but it shouldn't be difficult either.

"The best way to avoid fake news on social media is to not use social media as your primary news source," said Moravec. "If you do see news on social media, check the source. If you haven't seen it before or know it's disreputable, don't read the headline. Research has found that mere exposure to headlines makes you believe them more."

Even when the headline matches what you already believe, which Moravec said could create "confirmation bias" it is still advisable to search that headline and more important to verify the information on other creditable sites. "Read the actual news articles, not just the headlines," she added. "Searching for the headline will also allow you to read the information from a potentially different perspective."

In the end, some healthy skepticism could go a long way.

"Absolutely," Moravec noted. "Even if the story doesn't seem fake; but seems influential or important, it is best to check before you accept."

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Peter Suciu I am a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. I covered the Detroit bankruptcy for Reuters in 2014, and I currently write about social media, cybersecurity, and international affairs.

I am the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on


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