Trying to fight online misinformation and fake news is like a game of Whack-A-Mole, especially during an election season. Social media giants tried to stem the flow during last week’s contentious election and its aftermath. Facebook attempted to make misinformation on its platform “less visible” while Twitter added labels to tweets they deemed “misleading.”
Over the last week, rumors about “election interference” and “voter fraud” have flooded social media. One rumor suggested that 21,000 dead voters in Pennsylvania had “voted” for Joe Biden. At the same time, a video went viral on Twitter, showing an individual burning ballots supposedly cast for Donald Trump. Another rumor suggested that Milwaukee reported more ballots cast for president than registered voters.
All three rumors were proven false, as were dozens of others that have appeared since Election Night. It’s hard to imagine the left wouldn’t make similar claims had Donald Trump won reelection. Remember how the left claimed that Trump “rigged” the 2016 election?
Social media companies’ efforts to control the spread of misinformation and fake news seem to either worsen the issue or fall short. That’s because their “solutions” are usually Band-Aids. Social media content moderation policies — while important — typically address the symptoms of the issue, rather than the cause. Reduction of the spread of harmful, false rumors lies in the classroom, not Silicon Valley.
Both misinformation and fake news are often spread as false rumors. Rumors are most powerful and widespread during times of uncertainty. That’s why fake news and misinformation appear to be at an all time high this year, and especially over the last week. No one knows what will “happen next” after a contentious presidential race amid a growing pandemic. Fears over something we understand are bad enough. Fears over something we don’t are unbearable. This creates anxiety and rumors fill the information vacuum.
There is no group of people immune to the appeal of rumors. Cass Sunstein points out that rumors spread because they “fit with, and support, the prior convictions of those who spread them.” It’s hardly a surprise that rumors about voter or election fraud are more popular with supporters of President Trump, who came out on the losing end of the presidential race. But rumors are not unique to the right. Before the election, critics of President Trump latched onto a claim the Trump campaign had pulled ads from Florida. The report turned out to be greatly exaggerated. In both cases, most of the people sharing information about these rumors did so because they wanted them to be true.
We would all like to believe we’d valiantly “fact-check” every false claim posted by our Facebook friends, but it doesn’t always work out that way. It is difficult to critically examine rumors that align with our biases and are shared by our friends. Furthermore, social media’s ideological silos — where like-minded people only talk to other like-minded people — can perpetuate the spread of rumors. People who discuss rumors in those echo chambers are less likely to critically analyze or discard them when faced with limited disagreement. Experts are split on whether this trend will improve — a plurality believes they will not.
Social media companies can address the effects of false rumor spread, or may mitigate them, but they are largely unable to address the features of human nature that allow for them to spread. That’s where schools come in. Fourteen states have taken substantial action toward requiring media literacy education in classrooms. Organizations like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and PBS Newshour offer programs of their own that help teach both students and the public at large how to critically analyze news articles and posts they see on social media.
These are important programs, but they unfortunately only impact a small percentage of students in this country. More states and cities should consider implementing media literacy programs of their own so that students will understand how to identify false rumors or news and critically analyze sources before they become substantially active online.
Effective, school-based media literacy programs will educate students about the cognitive flaws that draw us to false rumors — motivated reasoning, biased assimilation and cognitive biases. They will also teach students to critically analyze sources and information they find online. An effective media literacy must also have bipartisan support — no one side of the political aisle is more likely to believe false rumors.
Rumors, like viruses, are a part of life. They are often fleeting, but that does not mean they cannot be damaging. During times of panic and uncertainty, rumors are expected, and efforts to prevent them entirely are futile. Instead, we can educate young people and future generations about how to identify them so that we can slow their spread and hasten their ends. In the meantime, we should all take everything we see on social media with a grain of salt.
Amy Lutz (@amylutz4) is a historian and Young Voices contributor based in Missouri. She holds a master’s degree in history from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where she specialized in rumor studies.