Social ills: understanding the spread of misinformation online

LIMA — Social media has had and continues to have a significant impact on society in communication, information sharing, business and politics. Social media has had both positive and negative impacts on society. It continues to shape the way we communicate, work and interact with one another. Social media has become pervasive in our society.

In a presentation to students at Bluffton University, Tasha Dunn Myers, associate professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Toledo, shared that Facebook has over 2.96 billion monthly active users. If Facebook were a country, it would have the largest population in the world. Over two times that of China.

Dunn said, “There’s always going to be the like and follow culture associated with social media. I think it was premised on that culture. And I think it has grown. I think that because it’s the culture that many users were trained into; it’s hard to escape that. So we’ll see different iterations of it in different platforms. I don’t know if it’s something that can necessarily ever be escaped, but we can learn to be more conscientious of it.”

According to a study by Pew Research, a majority of U.S. adults – 66% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often. A similar study in 2012, 49% of U.S. adults reported seeing news on social media. Social media is becoming a greater influence throughout the world.

About half of Americans say they prefer a digital device (53%), more than say they prefer TV (33%). Even fewer Americans prefer radio (7%) or print (5%). These percentages have stayed mostly consistent since 2020 according to a Pew Research study. Americans under 50 are more likely to turn to digital devices and prefer them for getting news than are those 50 and older. Conversely, Americans 50 and older are more likely to turn to and prefer television.

Social media platforms provide a forum for individuals to express their opinions and share information, often in real-time. However, not all information shared on social media is accurate or reliable, and the truth of content can sometimes be difficult to ascertain.

Recently, reports spread about U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell being hospitalized for a concussion after a fall. A number of social media posts circulated claiming that he had died. “Mitch McConnell is dead,” one Twitter user posted.

There are several steps you can take to help verify the truth of social media content: check the source; look for other sources; check for inconsistencies; check for bias; use fact-checking websites such as Snopes, PolitiFact, or and be skeptical of sensational claims. It’s essential to use critical thinking and skepticism when evaluating social media content. Double-checking the information and verifying its accuracy can help you avoid spreading false or misleading information.

There are a number of social media sites that have sprung up and have a devoted following. Parler, Truth Social, Telegram, Rumble, Gab, Gettr and BitChute have each gained popularity in recent years, with Parler, Truth Social and Telegram gaining relatively larger followings than the others. Pew Research reports that posts on new social media sites like these, which are noted for their pointedly conservative user bases, more often link stories back to other social media outlets, where misinformation can flourish, as opposed to more traditional print publications or wire sources.

One aspect of the nature of truth in social media platforms is the concept of “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers.” These are situations in which individuals are exposed to information and opinions that confirm their existing beliefs, which can reinforce their biases and prevent them from encountering alternative perspectives.

The Meta web site says the social network uses algorithms to “arrange all of the content you could see on the feed, Search, Marketplace, Groups, and Watch with the aim of showing you the things we think you may be most personally interested in at the top of each surface.”

The Facebook algorithm evaluates every post, ad, story, and reel. It rates content and then arranges it in descending, non-chronological order of interest for each individual user. This process happens every time a user refreshes their feed.

Doing so is intended to keep showing a user the things that specific user will like and thus keep them on the platform. That also shuts out alternative views that the user may not have seen or interacted with before.

A post-election survey of 3,015 American adults suggested that it is difficult for news consumers to distinguish fake from real news. Chris Jackson of Ipsos Public Affairs undertook a survey that found “fake news headlines fool American adults about 75 percent of the time” and “‘fake news’ was remembered by a significant portion of the electorate and those stories were seen as credible.”

Social media companies have adopted two approaches to fight misinformation. The first one is to block such content outright. For example, Pinterest bans anti-vaccination content and Facebook bans white supremacist content. Meta on its web site says, “… we remove accounts that are harmful to the community, including those that compromise the security of other accounts and our services. We have built a combination of automated and manual systems to block and remove accounts that are used to persistently or egregiously abuse our Community Standards.”

The other approach is to provide alternative information alongside the content with fake information so that the users are exposed to the truth and correct information. This approach, which is implemented by YouTube, encourages users to click on the links with verified information that would debunk the misguided claims made in fake or hateful content.

Social media has become an unavoidable part of life, providing many benefits and opportunities for individuals and society as a whole. However, it’s also necessary to be aware of its liabilities.

Reach Dean Brown at 567-242-0409

Dean Brown joined The Lima News in 2022 as a reporter. Prior to The Lima News, Brown was an English teacher in Allen County for 38 years, with stops at Perry, Shawnee, Spencerville and Heir Force Community School. So they figured he could throw a few sentences together about education and business in the area. An award-winning photographer, Brown likes watching old black and white movies, his dog, his wife and kids, and the four grandkids - not necessarily in that order. Reach him at [email protected] or 567-242-0409.