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Social Media Cannot Be Democratic While Fake News Exists

            In today’s highly politicized climate, social media websites are full of information regarding political candidates and issues, some of which is false. The epidemic of fake news, particularly as it surfaces on social media, creates a larger problem in political discourse on these websites. Social media websites are supposed to be democratic places where all voices matter and where people can debate issues and create social or political change, but fake news and echo chambers present a danger to this discourse. Social media users can alter their stances due to fake news, linger in echo chambers that reinforce their opinions, or be too stuck in their own beliefs to engage thoughtfully with those with conflicting opinions. Therefore, social media platforms are not democratic and actually encourage divisions among users.

            Fake news can cause people to reconsider facts and believe that they are in possession of all the knowledge they need to make an informed opinion, as Georgina Kenyon emphasizes in her article about researcher Robert Proctor, titled “The man who studies the spread of ignorance”. Proctor demonstrates how companies or politicians willfully “spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour” and do so “under the guise of balanced debate” (Kenyon), which creates divisions where both sides believe they are correct. Another researcher, David Dunning, illustrates the danger that alternative facts create: “When people do not understand a concept or fact, they are prey for special interest groups” and “many will be misled into a false sense of expertise” (Kenyon), which makes it harder for them to accept the opinions of others as facts. Dunning’s advice for resisting fake news and creating a more democratic space for dialogue online is to “consult with others”, as “their opinions go a long way to correcting our own imperfections” (Kenyon). If social media users listen to experts instead of people furthering their own agenda and educate others through discussion, social media will become more knowledgeable and democratic.

            Even the presence of political imagery can influence how people think and make them susceptible to fake news, as demonstrated in Nsikan Akpan’s article, “How seeing a political logo can impair your understanding of facts”. He details the pitfalls of social media as a space for creating dialogue: “[I]nstead of allowing us to learn from the millions of people on the other side of the screen, these digital platforms lock us in our personal beliefs” (Akpan). In the study he describes, the presence of political party logos “undermined [people’s] ability to collectively interpret climate change data”, while the absence of party logos resulted in people of different parties “reach[ing] the same conclusion” (Akpan), which shows that people may blindly support their party. Even when accurate facts are available from others, people can remain stuck in their beliefs: “Social learning was nonexistent in the network where people could view each other’s party leanings”, but when Democrats and Republicans could work together “without identifying their political affiliations” they came to the same conclusion, and became better at “accurately interpret[ing] facts” (Akpan). Dannagal Young claims that the study suggests, “[P]artisanship gets in the way of collective intelligence”, causing people to “think as partisans first” (Akpan). To combat the polarizing effect that partisanship has on social media, Young wants journalists to focus more on the issues themselves than “personalized, dramatized political fights” (Akpan). If social media websites remove political imagery and drama as well as falsified news, users can engage in thoughtful conversation and mutual learning.

            If social media is a democratic space meant to encourage conversation and social learning, it has had some success. Monica Anderson’s article “Social media causes some users to rethink their views on an issue” demonstrates the success social media has achieved in teaching users and forming or changing their opinions. Social media has modified stances on political or social issues and helped shape or change the views of around 20% of users according to polls (Anderson). Some users even found out about political candidates online, or discovered information that swayed their voting choice (Anderson). Most information found on social media changed users’ opinions negatively (Anderson), which shows the power of social media as a space where dialogue can create change, even in opinions. Social media also has the power to change people’s opinions on societal issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and gun control (Anderson), as it gives people a platform to speak out about these issues. Despite its apparent success in swaying opinions through information and dialogue, social media as a democratic space has not influenced many people. Around 80% of users have not altered their opinions about social issues or political candidates based on what they see on social media (Anderson), which shows that social media still has a long way to go before being a completely open space for thoughtful discussion and change.

            One of the main reasons why social media struggles to create space for factual discussion is because of the rampant fake news on social networking sites, which entrenches users in their beliefs and gives them incorrect information that they wield in arguments online. The article “Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion” by Barthel et al. illustrates the damage fake news has done to social media users and social media itself as a space for open thinking. The article claims that two-thirds of adults in America believe fake news “cause[s] a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events”, and this percentage includes both Republicans and Democrats (Barthel et al.). Despite the danger fake news creates, most Americans believe they can accurately detect fake news, although these users may not be correct in their presumptions (Barthel et al.). The study shows that fake news is a major contributor to the uninformed opinions and deep-rooted beliefs of social media users today, so if it no longer existed, some of the opinions on both sides of the spectrum would likely be different, and there would be additional thoughtful discourse between members of different parties. When asked how to prevent fake news from spreading, Americans called upon the government, social media sites, and the public, and they assigned a “roughly equal amount of responsibility to all three of these groups” (Barthel et al.). Though Americans disagree on who should manage and prevent fake news stories, they all agree that these stories must cease to exist so everyone can receive accurate information regarding the candidates and issues.

            Social media is extremely important in society today, with many using it daily to maintain friendships, complete their work, or acquire news. Some problems that arise from people getting their news online include fake news and echo chambers that keep users surrounded by opinions that match their own. Both of these are highly dangerous, as they result in users being uninformed about the actual issues or being too attached to their preexisting beliefs to accept new information. Social media is supposed to be a place where everyone can express their opinion and discuss it with others to share information and perhaps change their views; however, fake news and deep political divisions have made it difficult to encourage respectful, democratic dialogue. If the government, social media, and users cracked down on fake news, if journalists focused solely on the issues themselves instead of creating drama between political parties, and if users were more willing to consult with and learn from others with different opinions, then social media would become a democratic space.

 

Works Cited

Akpan, Nsikan. “How seeing a political logo can impair your understanding of facts”. PBS, 3 Sept. 2018,

            www.pbs.org/newshour/science/how-seeing-a-political-logo-can-impair-your-understanding-of-facts.

            Accessed 19 October 2018.

Anderson, Monica. “Social media causes some users to rethink their views on an issue”. Pew Research Center, 7

            Nov. 2016, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/07/social-media-causes-some-users-to-rethink-

            their-views-on-an-issue/. Accessed 19 October 2018.

Barthel, Michael, et al. “Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion”. Pew Research Center:

            Journalism & Media, 15 Dec. 2016, www.journalism.org/2016/12/15/many-americans-believe-fake-news-

            is-sowing-confusion/. Accessed 19 October 2018.

Kenyon, Georgina. “The man who studies the spread of ignorance”. BBC: Future, 6 Jan. 2016,

            www.bbc.com/future/story/20160105-the-man-who-studies-the-spread-of-ignorance. Accessed 19

            October 2018.

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