While social media isn't always a breeding ground for fake news, they were prolific here during the 2016 Presidential Election, with users sharing more fake news articles—created by individuals and organizations seeking to mislead the public for financial or political gain—than legitimate ones.
Social media platforms cultivate complex relationships with their users, who are both creators and consumers of content. Add integrated advertising (like sponsored posts) into the mix, and it can be daunting to figure out what's true.
What is the relationship between social media and fake news?
Fake news spreads through sharing links on social media by individuals. Always verify and evaluate articles before posting.
Fake news is spread through fake social media accounts powered by social bots.
What is a bot? How do bots influence social media?
A social bot is a computer algorithm that is programmed to produce content and interact with humans on social media, aiming to mimic and influence human behavior. Bots are deployed in helpful ways to automate a range of business functions, and deployed in harmful ways when when they increase the dissemination of false information.
How do I spot a bot on social media?
Look for the following 3 identifiers:
Frequency: How often does the account in question post? How much does it post? How regularly? Is there a pattern? Is the volume of content posted beyond human capability?
Content: Can this account properly interact when contacted directly? Is the content posted consistent? Does it make sense semantically?
Social network analysis: Does this account have a diverse set of network connections? What does the network look like visualized on a map? Does this account look like it is only following other bots? Does this account interact in conversation from the margins or from the center?
Adapted from: Samuel C. Woolley, "Resource for Understanding Political Bots." PoliticalBots.org: A Project on Algorithms, Computational Propaganda, and Digital Politics. Last accessed on June 9, 2017.
Professional fact-checkers read laterally, meaning they initiate a new search on a separate screen to research the content of an article or website. They look beyond what is stated on "About" pages and ignore the placement of articles in search results as evidence that the top results are the best results. Fact-checking is an active process that should engage multiple sources before arriving at a decision about the reliability of news information. Therefore, it is in your best interest to move beyond Facebook when evaluating information found there.
How do you know if the content you are looking at on Facebook or Twitter is advertising? Look for clues!
Facebook marks posts generated through advertising and inserted into your news feed as "sponsored" with this marker:
Facebook will mark additional advertising content filtered to you through algorithms with the word SPONSORED located above it.
Twitter marks its advertising content as "Promoted Tweets." Look for the icons below marking promoted content at the top or bottom of tweets:
Is all sponsored or promoted content filtered to you through social media intentionally false or misleading?
It's a mixed bag. It's up to you to think critically and decide for yourself. Either way, being able to identify content as advertising rather than journalism is necessary to making an informed decision.
Eli Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy.com, provides a simplified explanation covering how algorithms are deployed by companies to limit content in social media feeds and internet search results.
Pariser, Eli. "Beware Online 'Filter Bubbles.'" TED, filmed March 2011, http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.