The big tech topic that’s raged across America in the wake of the 2016 election is that of “fake news.” President Obama thinks it’s a problem. The pope thinks it’s a problem. The concerns grew strong enough for Facebook, generally seen as the largest unwitting disseminator of misinformation online, to introduce new tools to prevent explicitly false stories from spreading.
And as this chart from Statista shows, most Americans think the issue is real. According to a study released last week by the Pew Research Center, 88% of the 1,002 US adults surveyed believe fake news stories cause at least some deal of confusion about the basic facts of current affairs.
While those surveyed found the government, the general public, and social networks like Facebook to be equally responsible for preventing fake news from spreading, Pew notes that only 15% of those surveyed believe all three are responsible at once; people are simply divided enough in their blame for all three groups to come out with near-equal numbers.
The data shows people want those in power to find a way to stop the spread of fake news, but there’s a bigger, underlying issue here: The term “fake news” has become too nebulous to be useful.
What Facebook is addressing are essentially hoaxes: deliberately lying stories that are designed to look real and game the algorithms and belief systems that permeate social networks, oftentimes in the search for advertising revenue. But the term “fake news” has also come to represent age-old problems with the internet itself, particularly the way in which poorly-reported information can be spread just as easily as accurate news, if not more so.
In this light, disincentivizing those who would create hoaxes is a needed step, but not a full-on fix. For that, we’d have to address more structural conflicts within the media’s increasingly dependent relationship with online platforms, particularly Facebook and Google. And that may actually be everyone’s responsibility.