Can Fake News Be Controlled?


Note: This essay assignment has many sources for background information. Please read them to get a clear picture of the overall news environment.

To start, we need to have a clear idea of what constitutes fake news. A common definition for fake news is the one found on Wikipedia that states fake news "is a type of ... journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media."

Fake news has been around for centuries in many forms. Even before news was available on social media sites, email and traditional web sites made it possible for hoaxes to quickly spread, giving rise to sites like Snopes whose purpose is to refute hoaxes and urban legends. 

So if this problem has been around for years, why has it become a significant issue now?

Having reliable information available to the public is at the heart of what makes an effective democracy possible. The Internet and social media have made it possible for false information, both deliberately falsified and accidentally falsified, to quickly spread far beyond a local community to millions of readers. Many people find it hard to differentiate propaganda and fake news from well-supported and researched journalism.

More and more frequently, inaccurate information is shared on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites and then related by news services, thus increasing the likelihood if it going viral. This is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • A 2016 Pew Research study found that overall, 38% of Americans get their news online and 50% of those who prefer to read news, get their news online. This implies that online news, whether real or fake, is a powerful factor shaping the perspective Americans have of the world.

  • People have a tendency to accept as "true" information that supports their current beliefs over claims that challenge their beliefs, even if the information supporting their beliefs is less objectively plausible. For evidence of this, do a quick search on the topic "facts don't change minds" -- there are many articles on this topic and some recent research from several universities.

  • Facebook and other social media sites as well as news aggregator sites play to your perceived biases and filter your newsfeeds based on your points of view. To see an example, the Washington Post has created a web page where you can see the different newsfeeds generated by FaceBook for conservatives and liberals. 

Compounding this issue is the line between biased news and propaganda. Is biased media fake news? The web site AllSides believes so and strives to provide reporting from multiple sources on each story. They also have put together a bias rating for major news sources.

 In the summer of 2017, Germany passed a law stating that social media sites face fines for not removing hate speech or fake news from their sites. 

A bill in California was introduced in the spring of 2017 that would make it illegal for social media sites to publish false or deceptive information on candidates. 

Your Task

Write a short essay (roughly 800 - 1000 words) that examines actions various players can take against fake news and propaganda to protect the integrity of elections in a democracy. (If you feel you need to, you can write more than 1000 words to thoroughly address the topic.) Focus on these questions:

  • Social media sites: Look into actions taking by Facebook to address fake news since the 2016 U.S. election.

    • What is reasonable about these actions?

    • What is unreasonable or likely to be ineffective?

    • How have these curtailed free speech and what do you consider Facebook's responsibility to protect free speech and why?

  • Federal and state governments: How could other democracies implement measures similar to those taken by Germany to address the fake news epidemic? 

    • What are the different responsibilities and actions that could be taken at the federal and state levels?

    • Which is a more appropriate manner to deal with this issue?

  • Citizens: What are the responsibilities of citizens in democracies in vetting the information they receive from social media, traditional news sources (newspapers, broadcast network news, etc.) and from friends and family?

    • How can the typical citizen identify fake news or propaganda? How can the level of effort in doing this be reduced since activities that take more than a click or two seldom get completed?