The biggest social network is probably the most toxic one. Just scroll down the newsfeed and there is a good chance a friend of yours is sharing hoaxes or misinformation. Open the comment section under any news and it’s impossible not to see all this hate speech.
When I joined Facebook in April 2009, it was a place where I could chat with my friends, share thoughts on the wall and take silly quizzes and play games. Twelve years later, it’s a behemoth with 2,7 billion monthly active users and space where fake news and misinformation travel rapidly.
It’s still a place where people communicate with friends and absorb the news. But it is hard to ignore the growing trend of polarization of society and all the hatred and hoaxes spreading on Facebook. And this is not just Facebook’s problem, we can see this as an issue with social media in general.
We’ve seen hoaxes on Facebook for years now. Some of them are less harmful than others. You may remember the Facebook privacy hoax. It said that everything you ever posted on Facebook including all private messages will become public unless you share that post. Many people fell for it and shared the message. It was total nonsense, but the only damage it did was people spamming the newsfeed.
But other hoaxes may be much more damaging. Popular conspiracy theories were associated with 5G networks. There were claims that 5G is spreading coronavirus, or damaging our brains. As a result, people in some countries started to set 5G towers on fire or even harass workers who were preparing 5G installations. Scientists have been repeatedly saying that there is no evidence of 5G being harmful to people. The only thing it’s spreading is the Internet to your smartphone.
Bill Gates is also the popular object of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. One theory was saying that “Covid-19 pandemic is a cover for a plan to implant trackable chips and that Bill Gates is behind it”. The poll by YouGov showed that 28 percent of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips to people. It’s absurd to think about that and yet millions of people worldwide are believing and sharing information like that. The result is that people are less willing to get vaccinated. And by doing that they are jeopardizing their own health and the health of others as well.
The speed of spreading conspiracy theories
And nothing spread faster than a conspiracy theory, misinformation, or sensational information of any kind. At the beginning of this year, a woman in Spain shared a video saying that the fallen snow is fake because it won’t melt. The same thing happened a month later when a snowstorm hit Texas. And later people all over the world were suddenly holding lighters near snowballs to prove that the snow won’t melt because it’s made from plastic or some other nonsense.
Once again, there was a simple scientific explanation. “As the open flame hits the snow, the frozen water sublimates. In other words, it goes straight from frozen to gas, completely skipping the liquid phase. As for the black scorch marks, these come from using the lighter. Commonly, lighters are filled with butane, a hydrocarbon compound containing carbon and hydrogen. When butane burns, it reacts with oxygen in the air and releases CO2 and H2O, but it also causes the formation of black soot,” stated in European Scientist.
Why people fall easily for hoaxes and disinformation
But even with a scientific explanation, it may not be easy to persuade people who believe and share things like this. People with similar beliefs and worldviews are often grouped in the vast sea of Facebook groups. So if one person shares a hoax or a particular conspiracy theory in this group, others quickly react with likes and comments. Then this person thinks that it must be the truth when others are agreeing with him or her. Like-minded individuals also start to share this message. And the more people engage with the post, the more it is going to be promoted.
Facebook algorithms also work in a way that they show you similar news or sources that you are already following. So there is a good chance that the more fake news you will read, the more of them you will see. But why do people fall so easily for hoaxes and fake news? Professor at Syracuse University, Whitney Phillips, says that one of the reasons is “when confronted with new information, humans don’t always do the logical thing and evaluate it on its own merits. Instead, we often make snap decisions based on how the information adheres with our existing worldviews.”
How is Facebook fighting the spread of false news?
Facebook is saying on its website, that it works to fight the spread of false news in three key areas:
- “Disrupting economic incentives because most false news is financially motivated
- Building new products to curb the spread of false news
- Helping people make more informed decisions when they encounter false news.”
Facebook knows that misinformation and conspiracies are a serious problem, but are they doing enough? They have third-party fact-checkers which are removing fake accounts and reducing the reach of fake news, but considering the sheer amount of Facebook users and the number of posts shared daily, it’s impossible to remove everything.
Sometimes it also can be hard to recognize if the shared information is fake or not. And even if Facebook bans a fake account, the person behind it can quickly create a new one and start again. Last year Facebook also announced that it will notify people who engage with false posts about COVID-19 which could cause physical harm. It’s nice to have these policies, but they may not be sufficient to prevent false and misleading content.
How to recognize fake news
We should always verify information, especially if it looks suspicious. The basic rule is to check the source. Is it on a reputable website? Was it written by a known journalist or is the author just someone on the Internet? One source may not be enough, it’s for the best to find other sources confirming the information. There is Google, just use it. With quick googling, you may sometimes verify the trustworthiness of information in seconds or minutes.
If the story is citing some people, also check that. Are they credible or experts in the field of interest? What are other experts saying about it? Don’t forget to also check the date when information was published, if it’s still relevant.
Fighting hoaxes, disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories is hard. Sometimes even the best arguments and all the credible sources in the world can’t win an argument with a person who is convinced about his own truth. But we can always try.