Stop Reposting Everything You Read: A Plea
Nearly every day, I see someone reposting some relevant narrative or supposed fact on their Instagram story, usually a sob story or statistic about a political or social issue. And every time it kills me a little bit more when the person who published the “narrative” or “fact” is just another Twitter/Instagram/Tumblr user with no legitimate credibility.
Now, before I lose you, let me just say this: I will concede that some of these users are telling the truth. But how do we know for sure?
While it seems harmless to repost a story that raises awareness about a legitimate cause, if it’s not a real fact or statistic, it still counts as “fake news.”
Especially in our largely left-wing Bay Area, “fake news” is probably associated mostly with alt-right efforts to spread misinformation. Perhaps you remember the “Pizzagate” scandal when false stories which alleged that Clinton and her allies were running a child sex trafficking ring out of a Washington DC pizzeria started to circulate. Maybe you, like me, would scoff at the notion that someone could consequently storm the restaurant with an assault rifle to “investigate” (Yes, this happened, and here’s my proof).
Or maybe you think of misinformation as the Russian bots which created divides through fake American twitter accounts within the Democratic Party in 2016?
In fact, this issue is much bigger than the Right tricking gullible followers into criminalizing the Left. Because, as much as I hate to say it (full disclosure, I lean Left, though I strive for objectivity), the Left does it too.
Take, for example, the election between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones for an Alabama Senate seat in 2017. In this election, Democrats campaigning for Jones employed the same tactics as Russians did in 2016; they emphasized a divisive issue through fake social media accounts, hoping to weaken the Republican Party’s hold on the election.
Matt Osborne, a progressive activist and one of the perpetrators of this misinformation campaign, created fake videos and social media accounts to associate Roy Moore with the Baptist campaign “Dry Alabama” (calling for an alcohol-free Alabama). He and others who worked on the project believed that this association would deter moderate, alcohol-approving Republicans from voting for Moore.
The campaign received $100,000 in funding, 80% of which went to Facebook ads. Additionally, the 4.6 million views on Facebook posts coupled with over 97,000 likes or shares and the “meme war” (I love that the New York Times used that phrase), could have precipitated Jones’ very narrow win.
Although Facebook shut down the accounts and Jones called for a Federal investigation, this was just one of the multiple left-wing campaigns to smear Moore. It’s nearly impossible to stop widespread, organized disinformation.
We, as simple social media users, can’t really make a change when it comes to this large-scale fakery, but we can take careful measures when it comes to our own reposts. I’d argue that watching what we post is more important than ever as “fake news” has gotten more and more insidious.
For example, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis, the second most liked and shared fake news post on Facebook in 2018 was “Former First Lady Barbara Bush dies at 92,” getting nearly 2.3 million engagements. That’s not too outlandish–she’s getting older, I’d believe it. The sixth most-liked post began with the phrase “Florida Man,” and enough weird, real stories come out about men in Florida that it’s not hard to believe that he tranquilized and raped alligators (or so the story went. Florida Man didn’t do that, but he did call 911 to report his wife is a ‘black widow spider’).
The fake stories that get the most attention tend to be the more moderate, sneaky ones that we are much more likely to believe. For example, during the 2017 G7 Summit in Sicily, a BBC reporter tweeted a video that seemed to show President Donald Trump without a translation headset during a speech by the Italian prime minister. Thousands of people shared the video, which became “proof” that President Trump wasn’t listening to translations from any other leaders. And, of course, this isn’t surprising because President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of listening to people other than himself. However, as it turns out, other pictures revealed he did have a small earpiece.
Likewise, this photoshopped image of Trump seemingly handing a MAGA hat to someone in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence was shared over 275,000 times by Trump supporters in an effort to emphasize his humanitarian side (in fact, manipulated photos and videos are more likely to go viral, according to Facebook).
Because fake news is getting harder and harder to discern, it makes sense that fake news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than real ones, according to a 2018 study from MIT. And a BuzzFeed News analysis found that in the final three months of the 2016 US election, certain fake election news stories on Facebook were shared and liked more frequently than top stories from the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and more. The top 20 fake news stories from those three months generated over 8,700,000 engagements on Facebook.
Now if you’re now thinking, “oh, those silly fools, couldn’t they tell it was fake?” then I want to remind you of something every Instagram user might remember from over the summer: the Sudan Meals Project. This, in fact, was the reason I decided to write this article; I am so tired of seeing fake or unsupported “facts” about a real, horrific situation being constantly reposted.
Not to say, of course, that Sudan’s widespread violence shouldn’t be gaining global attention and outrage–I just think that reposting and supporting misinformation and false narratives benefits random, disaster-exploiting, attention-seeking users rather than any true cause.
To remind you: in June of this year, many Instagram users started turning their profile pictures blue in solidarity with the crisis in Sudan–or, specifically, in honor of a Sudanese protester who was shot down by Sudanese government forces. His favorite color was blue.
Accounts like @sudanmealproject started emerging, with promises along the lines of, “For every person who follows and shares this on their story we will provide one meal to starving Sudanese children.” That account, which has now been taken down by Instagram, is one of the hundreds of fake accounts, many of which still exist on Instagram, bearing similar empty promises.
I personally saw support for this fake account reposted dozens of times on the Instagram accounts of various people I know–even though the account gave no reference to any details that might support their credibility such as how and where the meals would be distributed. But still, we repost.
Why? Because of our emotions.
A 2018 study of fake-news related twitter patterns found that false stories were more likely than true ones to elicit reactions of surprise and disgust. Moreover, these studies found that users who did better on a Cognitive Reflection Test were better at detecting false articles than those who rely on emotional intuition. Essentially, if we react emotionally to the story, we are less likely to logically deduce its truthfulness.
An article in Vice from March put it best: “In some ways, sharing a news story is no different from posting a song you love or a photo of your latest kitchen creation, or celebrating a relationship anniversary…. we’re providing other people with small glimpses of who we are. And sometimes, that need to express ourselves seems to blind us to what we’re actually sharing.”
The people putting out fake news know that we aren’t likely to think too hard about what we put on our Instagram stories, and they use this to their advantage. Although these fake-makers can put out stories with a political agenda in mind, more often than not, says Tessa Lyons, a Facebook employee who works on reducing misinformation within the company, fake news creators “aren’t loyal to any one ideology or geography.” In an interview in the Washington Post she explained, “They are seizing on whatever the conversation is,” usually for attention or money (Also, let’s just pause for a moment and acknowledge the fact that the fifth top fake Facebook post in 2018 was “Donald Trump Ends School Shootings by Banning School” and number seven was “Two altar boys were arrested for putting weed in the censer-burner.” And I just told you that someone is doing that for either attention or money).
But I’ll be a little bit optimistic: Facebook is doubling the number of humans that fight fakery on its network from 10,000 to 20,000. According to a study, these efforts have, in part, resulted in Facebook’s interaction with fake news declining by 50% since 2016.
I believe that the average social media user has a duty as well. As I preach this phrase, know that I, too, hate hearing this from my teachers, and it’s almost worse coming from me (sorry), but here it is: check your sources. This philosophy is why I’ve linked every source that gave me information for this article, and it’s why I very rarely repost unless I know for sure it’s completely legitimate.
It may seem less important to check sources on social media than it does on an essay, but it’s still vital to maintaining the overall ethical standards of common knowledge. There’s just no point in supporting a story or account that exists only to gain likes and attention; it discredits real and honest reporting from legitimate publications that work incredibly hard to give supported facts.
So, that’s all. Go check your Instagram. But as you do, however, a gentle reminder: Stop reposting everything you read.