Last week I hid someone from my Facebook news feed. We’ve all done it, and I’m sure people have done it to me. I was tired of seeing things that I found obnoxious or insipid or offensive or false or all of the above, and rather than unfriend them, I simply silenced them. This is not something I make a habit of, but it’s amazing how easy it is to block out what you don’t want to see. It literally takes two seconds.
In rhetoric, we talk a lot about “audience.” We spend time analyzing audience, how to affect particular audiences, how they are affected, and what it means. When the election results came out, I was thinking about audience in terms of what kind of news was actually reaching me and how I was getting it, especially if I was hiding what I didn’t want to see. Then I came across this feed in the Wall Street Journal that uses algorithms to compare typical liberal and conservative news feeds side by side. It’s a great example of the way we have been consuming news.
It doesn’t take long to realize that a good majority of the posts on both sides are not what would pass as “credible sources” in an introductory rhetoric class. Scarier still, these are posts that made this feed because the methodology states that they “have at least 100 shares, and come from sources with at least 100,000 followers.” Any way you slice it, there’s a big audience that’s seeing only what they want to see, and a lot of what they’re seeing may not even be true.
Buzzfeed confirmed this in a fairly detailed analysis where they explain that in the week they analyzed different kinds of news, some of the feeds with the most misleading content were also the most shared. “News items” on Freedom Daily and Occupy Democrats are rising to the top of the ranks all in the name of ad revenue. Voters—especially those on the right, according to Buzzfeed’s analysis—are constantly being fed false information.
Here is a sampling of some of the headlines that were trending when I visited liberal news site Addicting Info and conservative news site Freedom Daily:
- STUPID Trump Fans Think He Won The Popular Vote But He Lost By A HUGE Margin (TWEETS)
- Muslims See A Christmas Tree Being Set Up At A Mall, Then Start Attacking It (VIDEO)
- Trump Says He Supports Slashing Social Security From A Moral Standpoint
- McConnell Just Admitted He Made Up Obama’s War on Coal
- WOW Trump’s Numbers Are MASSIVE. The Media Will Never Report This.
These are cheap articles to write, and the number of people sharing these is huge. At the time I wrote this blog, the article about Muslims attacking a Christmas tree has over 6,000 shares.
How do we make this better and how do we guide our students to make better choices? It has always been incredibly important for students to know where to get credible sources. In my Rhetoric classes, I often point my students to this page on the UT library website to help them choose sources for their essays. I know that this is not how they are getting their news when they are out in the world, but I can at least hope that constantly discussing what is credible is of some help. Here’ s another resource, a Google doc that a communications professor put together with a list of false, misleading, or clickbaity news sites to avoid. None of these sites are sources I would allow my students to use as evidence in an argument (depending on the assignment of course), and it’s good to have it all in one place for reference. This is a living document that is constantly being edited and added to.
But it is can also be really difficult to find unbiased news sources anymore, especially when we are constantly curating our own news. Someone in the article I just linked to receives 100% of their news through Facebook. Everyone has always gravitated towards the news they want to see, but there are serious consequences for picking and choosing and sharing things that are false.
Over at the Nieman Lab, they argue that during this election cycle, people just weren’t seeking out quality news, and some people are blaming Facebook for not working hard enough to combat fake news stories. Were voters riled up at the polls about fake news stories they read online? Mark Zuckerberg responded that even with the ability to flag misinformation on Facebook, many news stories “express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual.”
We have to keep talking to students about credibility. Here’s one lesson plan you can use to get the conversation started: