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Fake news: for millennials, figuring out what news to believe is getting harder

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“I was scrolling down my Facebook news when suddenly I saw that one of my friends shared an article about President Donald J. Trump cancelling visas for everyone from  Bolivia to enter the US. I was very excited and shared it in my timeline, I also give a call to my mom.” said Tamara Lobo, a 26 year old international student majoring in Physical Therapy at Mercer.

Lobo and her family are from Bolivia. After she shared the news with her parents, they were thinking of getting tickets to come and visit her, but later in the night when she went back to her Facebook feeds, she saw another article. This article was released from the official Bolivian Consulate and clarified that the first article was in fact a fake statement, and all Bolivians will still need a visa to visit the US.

“I felt so bad that I got my family all excited just because I didn’t pay attention to what I was reading, but it looks so legit because the page looked just like another news website,” Lobo told The VOICE.

There have been many stories like this one lately, stories that can accurately be called “fake news.”

The VOICE took a survey of 30 Mercer students about where they read their news, 87 percent said Facebook, 3 people mentioned traditional media such as a newspaper and/or TV outlets, and 1 said he never reads or watches any news.

The trouble with Facebook is that it is just as easy to quickly share news from unreliable news sources as it is to share real news. So if that 87 percent of Mercer students who are encountering their news on social media isn’t being careful and checking their facts, it is the perfect place for them to absorb fake news.

Steve Voorhees, Associate Professor of Television & Digital Film at Mercer told The VOICE, we are living in “A Post-truth Era, where people are believing what matches their beliefs, where people are just relying on one source instead of cross referencing multiple sources.”

The term “post-truth era” became popular in 2016 but a version of it has been in use since late night comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” on his show in 2005. The idea behind both terms is that people believe things that feel true to them, regardless of whether or not they are factually true. This can have serious consequences such as influencing voter turnout and votes being swayed by misinformation.

According to the non-partisan U.S. Elections Project, eligible millennials voted in lower numbers in 2016 than they had in 2012. while the The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), a youth research organization at Tufts University, notes that in several key states–Michigan, New Hampshire and Nevada–the youth vote kept the presidential election very tight, however, “a majority of them ended up on the losing side of the presidential race,” said CIRCLE director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg.

Millennials are one of the largest potential voting blocks but also one of the most likely to encounter fake news.

The VOICE interviewed, Mark Mueller, an investigative reporter for NJ Advance Media, about the difference between traditional media and social media spreading fake news. Mueller said “In reality reporters and editors will research if something was fake before they put it in the newspaper or put it on TV. Now it’s the wild west in the social media. Anybody can write anything and it can go viral. Whether it is true or not, someone is going to believe it.”

The social media platforms are changing our lives in many ways but especially with the way we communicate and spread our news.

Jim Gardner, Communication Director at Mercer says, “Sites like Facebook are a business model and they get paid for what they show, clicks for money, so there is no chance they want to censor people or pages that share fake news. That’s what happens when you live in an open democracy.”

However, according to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in a post from November 19, 2016, “The bottom line is: we take misinformation seriously.” He says the site is preparing to work with five fact-checking organizations–ABC News, AP, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes–to try to make it easier for users to flag fake news stories. If enough users report a story as fake, the social network would then send it to fact checkers to scrutinize so it can be removed.

Does Facebook’s effort constitute a form a censorship? Mercer Professor Steve Voorhees says, “Social media platforms are struggling with [the censorship question]. Yes, they want to stop fake news from spreading, but at the same time, how do we do this and still maintain our dignity of giving people a voice, whether you have an algorithm doing it or a person?”

According Dr. Dylan Wolfe Assistant Professor Communication at Mercer, there is a larger issue: “We are spending more time talking about who is or isn’t using true facts than we are discussing what does ‘facts’ mean.”

Professor Wolfe’s statement reflects a new concern. President Trump tweeted on February 17, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

Although organizations devoted to investigative reporting, like the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and ProPublica, provide the most indepth and best researched coverage of news stories, the sources the president has consistently named “fake news,” such as The New York Times, are among the better fact checked and most reliable. As of press time, the president has 154,000 likes on that tweet, meaning many of his followers are apt to be even more confused about what is fake news and what is fake fake news.

Mark Mueller of NJ Advance Media places the obligation to determine what news is real on the people, saying:  “News consumers, people who read the news, need to be more responsible and not share everything they see in social media and consider the sources where they are reading their news.”

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