While dissecting articles from various corporate news sources such as “The New York Times,” “The Economist,” and “Breitbart” in my previous Religion and Philosophy class, one of my peers asked, “Do you trust the news?”
The answer to this question is not simple — especially in the post-truth era, where it can be difficult to discern facts from fiction on social media.
It is troubling that the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as the 2016 word of year — defining it as a time at when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Now, more and more people, myself included, scroll through social media sites such as Facebook and Buzzfeed for news updates each day. When I see an eye-catching headline or article, I am quick to share the news with my friends. According to the Pew Research Center, however, popular sources like BuzzFeed, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Glenn Beck Program, and The Sean Hannity Show are at the bottom of the list of outlets trusted by the American public.
I have many times seen misleading stories disguised as credible news reports on these channels, as well as on many others. Such articles effectively take advantage of the free exchange of information in an American society on social media, and readers’ gullibility to create a destructive web of misinformation. This spread of misinformation can be seen in many politically-charged fake news articles, which can include opinions with the purpose of characterizing people with contrasting ideologies as misinformed, moronic, or villainous. Nonpolitical articles can also be damaging when they misinform. Some headlines I have seen recently on Buzzfeed’s Snapchat are, “10 Tips to Make Yourself More Desirable to Men,” “10 Life-Changing Things Every Creative Person Should Try,” and “Top 10 List Of What Not To Do On A First Date.” These headlines immediately grab your attention. This is why the age of post-truth news is so destructive: it plays on people’s emotions, identifications, anxieties, and many times, fears. Although seemingly harmless in the context of these particular articles, when dealing with more consequential topics, fake news rapidly spreads lies that can hurt and affect more than one person.
While it is imperative for the proliferation of fake news on social media to be addressed by the outlets that publish them — for example, by instituting increased fact-checking — it is nevertheless indisputable that people like to hear what they want to hear and react harshly to what they do not want to hear. Thus, social media refusing to separate professional news sources from unbacked opinion or news pieces tests the public to use their best judgement when deciding what they think are or are not “alternative facts.” Sharing articles with faulty data or disguised lies enables fake news to spread like wildfire, and allows these sites to gain more and more popularity. Though it may be tempting to share articles full of opinions you agree with, if you do not check the source, understand the stance from a range of platforms, or read the article in its entirety before sharing, you only perpetuate this problem.
We must learn how to play the game of post-truth politics by learning how to read and think critically. This might mean reading a broad array of perspectives, not taking social media headlines at face value, and remembering to “think before you click.”
As students, learning to develop valuable analyzing and critical thinking skills has never been so crucial. In this post-truth era, we must respect discussion backed by hard research and avoid contributing to the divisiveness and bias that fake news entails.