Fake news — it’s a term repeated to shut down criticism and weaken the blow of what otherwise might amount to administration-crippling revelations. But the phenomenon has done more than just warp public perceptions of good journalism — it has spread like a disease into the mainstream through social media and poisoned the proverbial well that many draw their daily news from.
In the old days, news-seekers picked up their favorite paper, not unlike their preferred brand of smokes, and digested what reporters had painstakingly chased down the day prior. As the Internet evolved, news websites sprang up offering a chance to consume their brand of news a little differently.
But then social media took root and allowed users to share anything and everything that crossed their meandering online paths. This unquestionably set the course for fake news to metastasize into the ugly malignance it is at this stage in the American experiment.
What’s more, the immediacy of sharing articles in social feeds and personal updates has prompted many readers to not even read what they pass along to one other. Instead they rely on questionably accurate headlines for their information.
But what makes online content credible? Researchers at the Media Insight Project — a collaboration between the American Press Institute (API), Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago — decided to find out, and they published their findings in a recent study.
What they found, API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel said, was that the sharer of the content weighed more heavily in the minds of viewers than its original source. If a Facebook friend is thought of as completely credible, the news they share, even if from a questionable original source, is more likely to be considered trustworthy.
The inverse is true of figures with a questionable track record of shares. “It was the sharer that drove how people perceived this,” Rosenstiel said.
Much of this is explained by what he called the “atomization” of news. Whereas people used to seek their information from single, reputable outlets, social media platforms have forever changed the delivery mechanism and mixed news with a host of other easily digestible content.
“In social media, that goes away. You’re inside Facebook, or you’re inside Twitter, or you’re inside Instagram, and the stories come at you one at a time," he said. “It’s not a surprise that the exchanger becomes really important. They, in effect, are the editors, the curators in the same way that when you are in a news domain it’s the news organization that is the decision-maker, the curator, the editor.”
Social media laid the groundwork for the explosion of fake news. Monitoring the types of content people consume has also made it easier for pop-up “news” organizations to distribute media with greater impact.
In this new environment, Rosenstiel argues that “content is not king, it’s actually distribution.”
When asked what the results of the study means for all of the government entities trying to effectively communicate with their constituents, Rosenstiel said building a positive, trust-based relationship with the audience is imperative.
“One of the lessons here is, it’s very important for you to create a community of people who follow you actively, not just say that they will get alerts from you, but who do so frequently and who you know are actually opening those alerts,” he said.
Two-way engagement becomes the essential component to building the trust that comes with timely and accurate content sharing, he explained. As trust and a following develop, Rosenstiel said the audience will ultimately become ambassadors for the content.
“That’s how you create the kind of vibrancy where they are not just going to follow you, but they are going to trust you and share your thing. It means that government that works has to be a government that is listening and interacting digitally with this community.”