Facebook, Google and Twitter are under federal investigation for allowing Russian propaganda to spread on their sites during the 2016 election. The three social media sites will have to answer questions about how they are combatting propaganda or how they are letting it slip through the cracks. The investigation will raise questions about how much of the political content readers consume is created with the intent to mislead.
For many people in the U.S., the Internet was a critical source of information during the 2016 election. 38 percent of people living in the U.S. got their news online. For Russian propaganda creators, the Internet was the best way to get at people’s strongest opinions.
Russian propaganda often looks like a regular social media site. One United States citizen, in an interview with NPR, shared her story of being fooled by what look like a human rights activist group page. The page in question, called Blacktivist, appeared to support the Black Lives Matter group. The Facebook page shared videos and information on police brutality. Facebook removed the Blacktivist page after discovering that its content was coming out of Russia.
In most cases, the Russian Facebook, Google and Twitter pages were meant stir up strong emotions in people. The Blacktivist group looked for people who had shared a Black Lives Matter sentiment or a mistrust in police. The goal of most propaganda sites was to confirm people’s beliefs in order to elicit a strong reaction.
The question is what are sites like Facebook, Google and Twitter doing to stop propaganda from popping up on a person’s recommended list? Facebook has regulations against sharing dangerous or explicit behavior. What Facebook doesn’t block is advertising; Facebook makes a profit from selling ad information.
This advertising technique is thought to deliver exactly the kind of products consumers want to them directly. However, by selling this information to others, Facebook ends up letting propaganda creators target people based on their opinions. Two Russian media outlets, RT and Sputnik, have already been excluded from the long list of companies that can buy advertisement space on Facebook.
Knowing that these Russian propaganda pages existed during the election, citizens must ask personal questions about how these sites could have influenced their political views. Important things to think about: how often did a page confirm one’s beliefs? How often was a page that perfectly fit one’s world view recommended? How much political news should one read from a social media site?
Expert Corner: Dr. Jean Pretz, department chair and professor of psychology
Social media has become a tool with hundreds of functions and purposes. Dr. Jean Pretz, department chair and professor of psychology, shared her thoughts on why many people use social media as a platform to stay informed about politics.
“It’s simply a more convenient way to look at news,” Pretz said. “Most people think, ‘I’m already here on Facebook or Twitter, I might as well catch up on the news.’”
Much of the propaganda present during the 2016 presidential election used confirmation bias to make people angry or upset. Confirmation bias is when an individual’s preexisting beliefs are supported by the news they read. Sometimes, people intentionally read for confirmation of their ideas. In the case of the propaganda, Facebook and Twitter posts were made to confirm widely held beliefs and get a strong response. Pretz explained how much confirmation bias affects people’s news reading habits today.
“People are more aware of confirmation bias these days, but it’s hard to know where to seek contrary information. Many people stick to news that confirms their ideas because it’s easy or because they don’t know where to start,” Pretz said.
So, what are some solutions to our bad news reading habits?
“Knowing your news sources is important,” Pretz said. “There are charts that outline where some newspapers have bias or inaccuracies. It’s a very helpful resource.”
The chart that Pretz mentions organizes newspapers and online news sources based on bias and presentation. Newspapers are analyzed for “left wing” or “right wing” bias and rated based on complexity. For example, sources such as “The Gaurdian,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “The Atlantic” are among some of the more complex and less biased news sources.
Overall, understanding our personal biases and becoming critical thinkers when we read the news will not be easy tasks.
“It takes work, but if you know you are susceptible to confirmation bias and other reading pitfalls, you can take measures to be more informed,” Pretz said.
“Jay Talk” Quotes from College Students
“On social media, [it seems] it is a ‘you’re with me or you’re against me’ mentality for most kids, and they don’t understand that just because someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean they’re a bad person.”
~ Anonymous student response
“I’d be lying if I said social media didn’t influence my thinking. But I try to keep myself well informed. I try to read the news outside of social media once every day.”
~ Dr. Jean Pretz, Department Chair and professor of psychology
“I believe that we are all people, and we will always somehow seek to identify our differences and separate ourselves accordingly. However, falsely-founded news from any source creates unnecessry political turmoil and bias which further divide people.”
~ Anonymous student response
“I usually would try to look up more information about a story if it was from a Facebook friend if it was something major or if the article seemed invalid or extreme. I’d usually do my best to find a nonbiased source in those cases.”
~ David Van Aken, junior