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Information Cascades and “Fake News”

Analysis —Senate Intelligence Hearing On Fake News, Free Speech And Russia

One of the biggest points of debate following last year’s presidential election is the problem of “fake news”, that is, misinformation spreading across different platforms of social media. More importantly, the effect that the spread of misinformation has on real world events. In regards to the election, many argue that slander labelled as news directed at candidate Hillary Clinton caused a surge in support for President Trump leading up to Election Day. The problem with spreading false information, other than the obvious, is something we have spend a great deal of time on in class.

The phenomena of information cascades is one that causes people to act not based on facts and their own experiences but the actions of others. One voter could be more influenced by the vote of his or her friends than the views of the actual candidates. An article claiming something could gain traction not because of the validity of its claims but simply because the number of people who have “liked” and “shared” it on social media. This spread and validation of misinformation then becomes exponentially more dangerous because of the power of social media to spread an idea throughout the globe in a matter of seconds. So now, billions of people have access to information that could ultimately be entirely false. How many of these people will then go and verify that the information they are reading is accurate before believing it and internalizing it into their own personal opinions? With a few simple keystrokes a bias article now is the intellectual basis for an entire group of people.

The question then becomes what should be done about this and more importantly, who should take the action. In recent months, Facebook and Google have both come out in saying that they will refine their algorithms to target and validate articles before allowing them to be spread. What is interesting is to see how exactly these lofty ideals will be implemented. As global propagators of news and information, these technology giants have a responsibility to their users and themselves to ensure the information being spread on their channels is accurate. However, when an idea gains followers it is hard to regulate or even manage to convince people who believe it that the idea is based on a false pretense. In the coming years this will be a huge issue that these companies must find a way to tackle in order to shape the way we receive news and information in the digital age.

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