The Dangers of Social Media News: Why Fact-Checking Is Important

Levi Herron, Contributing Writer

The word “news” has seemingly evolved over just the short span of our lifetime. What was once the near-sole purview of institutions such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, journalism has now become host to a litany of internet news companies and independent reporters. However, even that does not tell the whole story, for our generation, especially now, gets much of its news from non-traditional sources on social media. With no fact-checkers or competing opinions, a Tweet or Facebook post is increasingly seen as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, the diversification of Americans’ news consumption is positive in many ways. These new platforms give more Americans the ability to exercise their constitutional rights to free speech and a free press. However, we must be extremely wary of the outsized influence that unproven and uncorroborated social media claims can have in today’s digital world.

According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of American adults get news from social media, and that number is likely much higher for young people in particular. In 2018, social media news actually outpaced print newspapers for the percent of Americans who used it often to access journalism. Unlike traditional forms of journalism, social media posts are not fact-checked. There is no editorial staff reviewing the veracity of claims made on Facebook or Twitter that may garner millions of likes and shares. Similarly, there is rarely any follow-up if a post’s claims are proven to be false. The people who have already seen the post with inaccurate information continue to operate under the belief that it was true, and large groups end up wildly misinformed. According to Pew, 57% of Americans think social media news is “largely inaccurate.” Despite this, most Americans still regularly use it for news. In an interview with Quartz, Paul Barret, the Deputy Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, described the tendency to “get news from social media sites, even as large percentages of Pew respondents say they’re wary about whether that news is biased or sensationalized” as a “recipe for voter cynicism and intensified political polarization.”

Sadly, our own president is a great example of this. President Trump has made thousands of blatantly false statements to his massive Twitter audience, such as making wildly inaccurate claims about the path of a hurricane and lying about the number of new jobs created under his presidency. While these claims are widely reported as false by many news outlets, there are so many of them that it is impossible to address them all, and millions of Americans believe what he says.

We must be extremely wary of the outsized influence that unproven and uncorroborated social media claims can have in today’s digital world.”

Another example is Shaun King who, in addition to many similar cases, falsely accused a Texas State Trooper in 2018 of raping a woman. Police dashcam video completely disproved this claim, but not before the trooper received countless death threats and was the subject of a social media smear campaign. King, unlike attorney Lee Merrit who was also involved, never apologized or made any attempt to correct the record, he simply deleted the Tweets about it. After seven-year-old Jazmine Barnes was killed in a drive-by shooting in Houston, King plastered the face of Robert Paul Cantrell across social media baselessly describing the man as a racist and accusing him of murdering Barnes. As it turned out Cantrell had absolutely no connection to the horrific crime, which another man was arrested for, but still recieved numerous threats to himself and his family, eventually leading him to committing suicide.

Those are just a few examples of what has become so disturbingly common. False narratives online are very easy to make believable, and can have a significant effect on people’s perceptions of the world and of certain groups or institutions. The issue is not just of inaccurate reporting, but also of selective reporting, choosing to publish certain stories in order to forward a single narrative. This is a problem throughout the media, but especially so on social networks where there are no editors and little accountability.

Social media “reporting” is not going away any time soon. With 243.6 million social media users in the US, it is unlikely that that many people will change their news habits. What can be done however, is to educate people on the shortfalls and regular inaccuracies of social media coverage of current events. In light of the campaign of voter influence that was (allegedly) undertaken by the Russian government in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, in addition to the everyday false claims and selective reporting, we must be discerning about what we believe on social media. As psychologist Jean Kim writes in an article for Psychology Today, “The key is to proceed with caution; everything we read and respond to, designed to tug at our instant emotions and instincts, needs to be viewed with a skeptical eye.” We can never rely on just one perspective and can never take a single news report as incontrovertible truth. The reality of any issue has many dimensions, which is rarely on display in a Facebook post or Tweet. So, continue scrolling down your timeline and reading Tweets, but always think about the motivations of those posting, and keep in mind how easy it is to be misled.