The prevalence of so-called “fake news McCarthyism” and unsubstantiated accusations targeted at the mainstream media has expanded as a result of the growing number of people who receive the majority of their news from social media. In the exponential world of big data, particularly evident in Google Ad algorithms, market manipulators have gained the ability to disseminate heavily biased news.
These ad services, like many other forms of pattern-based algorithms, create a never-ending feedback loop that spreads like wildfire. Users read an inherently biased article (or simply read a misleading headline), repost it, and the false information reaches an even larger audience. Before you know it, Donald Trump is out there throwing Twitter fingaz.
Cathy O’Neil, former quant and big data extraordinaire, describes the issue of math-powered applications and ad services in her novel “Weapons of Math Destruction.” While detailing examples of biased programs or algorithms that lead to increased inequality, she describes how targeting certain individuals can lead to further deviation from the truth.
“Opaque and invisible models are the rule, and clear ones very much the exception. We’re modeled as shoppers and couch potatoes, as patients and loan applicants, and very little of this do we see […]. Even when such models behave themselves, opacity can lead to a feeling of unfairness,” O’Neil said.
Ads and unique headlines are commonly tailored to specific individuals, often with total disregard for accuracy or an intended bias. As it is, humans are often unaware of their own unconscious bias. Combine this with how headlines are often intended to “pop” rather than “inform,” and it’s easy to see how individuals can find themselves in a bit of a predicament.
Even when ignoring the algorithms and ad based navigation within social media platforms, manipulating headlines poses a clear problem based on the current behaviors of American consumers. According to a survey from the American Press Institute, roughly six in 10 people admit to only reading the headlines when receiving their news.
This dilemma has been one of the many contributing factors for President Trump’s clash with the mainstream media. While his accusations against the New York Times appear as fact based as the Times’ irresponsible claim of the Trump administration removing a bust of MLK (#FakeNews), he has a substantial point regarding the use of misleading headlines or inherently biased terminology.
Even Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker took a stab at the use of loaded phrases in a memo sent within the company. “Can we stop saying ‘seven majority-Muslim countries’? It’s very loaded. The reason they’ve been chosen is not because they’re majority-Muslim but because they’re on the list of countries Obama identified as countries of concern,” Baker said.
But, if the use of loaded terminology and biased headlines has been prominent for years, then why has the situation became progressively worse? Again, the answer lies partly within the use of math-based algorithms on Twitter and Facebook.
According to Clifford Lampe, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, social media has created even larger filter bubbles. “More people now receive their news (depending on their age demographic a bit) from social media than they do from direct viewing of news media. The outcome of this appears to be exacerbating filter bubbles. People naturally are connected to other people who share their characteristics and values, which means that the news people see shared in social media can match their pre-existing beliefs,” Lampe said.
Lampe does not believe social media is necessarily the one to blame for the prevalence of misleading news articles or headlines. Instead, the responsibility lies in the ad market and tendency for these ads within sites such as Facebook to automatically redirect inaccurate information.
“I’m not sure the issue is social media per se, but is rather the broader set of Internet technologies that make it very easy for people to create and disseminate “news” that is either fake or heavily biased. Social media does play a role in that it often is centered around emotional responses (for example, the reaction options on Facebook are all emotions) which leads to less critical or rational consumption of news,” Lampe said.
The issue has become even more hostile with the appointment of Sean Spicer as White House Press Secretary and Communications Director. Spicer’s quick temper and tendency to lambaste the media in heated press briefings has created a further divide between the Trump administration and the media.
While many of Spicer and Trump’s claims seem unsubstantiated, the ability for market manipulators and Google ad services to disseminate heavily biased news does not go unnoticed. According to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center, roughly one in four respondents admitted to sharing misleading news whether or not they were aware at the time.
Interestingly enough, the statistic from the Pew Research Center further aids any argument for people’s unwillingness to decipher truth from fiction. Many automatically assume statistics as accurate representations of the bigger picture, but fail to dive deeper into how the research was conducted.
I’m in no way claiming that research centers spread false information, but rather, people have a tendency to not question the accuracy at all. Does the data employ a large enough sample size? Were questions asked in a weighted way? Does the information have a cultural or geographic bias?
When people fail to raise questions, they are easily manipulated and can believe just about anything. Hence, create a false news report on Facebook, but make it look as real as possible, and more than likely someone is going to repost it. Not to mention, they’ll probably use that same statistic to aid them in a heated Fox News Facebook comment argument. If you’re lucky, Trump might even tweet about it.
By liking certain articles on Facebook which fall under this broad category, the chances of seeing similar misleading information increases. After all, just like many of the “Weapons of Math Destruction” O’Neil describes, the permeation of fake news occurs in a never ending feedback loop.
Although Spicer and Trump may come across as irresponsible, the need to hold news sources in check is a reality. However, the problem doesn’t lie with the mainstream media, it lies with those controlling ad services and social media pattern recognitions.