Social Media, Echo Chambers and Misinformation, Oh My

Do you remember standing in line at your local grocery store and reading the tabloid headlines about alien abductions and celebrity gossip and conspiracy theories? Most of us would roll our eyes and have a good chuckle, while others (you know who you are) would run and tell all their friends the latest, juicy “news” you just devoured.

Decades ago, those sorts of headlines were reserved for the grocery store aisle and shared with our small circle of friends. These days however, with social networks at our fingertips 24/7, we are bombarded by incredible headlines claiming all manner of absurdity at every waking moment.

Just like the grocery store aisle days, most of us roll our eyes and continue to scroll, but, there is a growing number of us who hit that share button faster than it takes our brain to process the information we just read.  Some of us don’t even bother reading the content of the article, the headline was enough…and so, the endless cycle of misinformation begins.

It is more important than ever that we take the time to become more sophisticated in the way we evaluate and use information.

This phenomenon of sharing phony information has become so prevalent that Dictionary.com named Misinformation the word of the year for 2018, which they define as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”

There’s the rub, we often don’t even know we’re doing it. We don’t mean to do it, but, the damage is done, regardless of our intent…and that damage is far reaching, well beyond our small circle of friends.

It can influence elections and policy decisions. It could even come full circle and affect our very lives.

In this easy-access, technology driven age, it is more important than ever that we take the time to become more sophisticated in the way we evaluate and use information.

If you want to become more information-savvy, consider these points:

First, the level at which purveyors of information can engage its audience will determine the value of ad space on their “news” platforms. In the most basic of terms, this means that certain publishers write absurd headlines to make money off you. You share it. Your friends share it. Their friends share it. The money comes rolling in! You are doing exactly what they want you to do.

Now that you and your friends shared this juicy “news” you’ll begin to see more of the same. Because afterall, it’s human nature to associate with the people and support the ideas that are familiar and comfortable to us.

This phenomenon is referred to as an Echo Chamber, “an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.”

Social Media Networks are designed to filter information tailored to your interests…because, drum roll…AD REVENUE!

We often want to believe that which supports our views, so we don’t bother researching further.

So, what’s a social network user to do?

Always remember…

  1. Not everything on the internet is true. Tap into your latent skeptic here.
    • Is the headline written to incite an emotional response?
    • Is the publisher reputable?
    • Is the author reputable?
    • Is there an obvious bias from any of the above?
    • Is it even a real news source at all?
  1. Bias is everywhere. Even reputable news sources show bias.
    • If you find yourself nodding in triumphant agreement with every headline you see, maybe it’s time to diversify your news sources beyond those with which you agree.
  1. Opinions are not facts. Opinions are statements that cherry-pick facts to support one’s specific view on a given issue. Just because someone writes an article on a given idea, doesn’t make it true.
    • Are sources cited? If so, check them. Are they reputable? While you’re at it, check reputable sources outside of the opinion piece.
  1. Before you share, research, research and research some more.
    • Think. Dig deeper. Do not hit that share button unless you can prove that it is true.

It’s not difficult to sniff out phony (or biased) news, but we often want to believe that which supports our views, so we don’t bother researching further. We have to stop doing this.

For more on social media and news literacy, check out Get Smart About News from the News Literacy Project

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