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Do People Look at Sources When Sharing Fake News on Facebook?

Concerns about the type of information and circulated through media have increased with unprecedented progress in information and communication technology. Specifically, the focus of concerns has swayed to social network systems (SNS) such as Facebook, Twitter, snapshot, and Instagram. These new forms of media have a different structure from print media, radio, and television. The new technology facilitates relaying of content among users without third-party filtering, editorial judgment, or verification of facts (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). The ability of a user who may be lacking track record can reach very many readers, who in turn can share the information with their friends. Thus, Facebook, like other social media, helps the spread of fake news. This paper seeks to review the existing literature on the tendency of Facebook users to verify a source of information before they share it.

Literature Review

Different works of literature have defined fake news in various ways. Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) defined fake news as articles that are deliberately false and misleading. In social media, the term refers to the publication of false posts, including Photoshop. This category of information excludes unintentional reporting errors, rumors that do not have specific source and conspiracy theories that are hard to verify as true or false. It also excludes satire that is improbable to be misconstrued to be true, untruthful statements by politicians, and misleading or skewed reports that are not false. Similarly, Gentzkow, Shapiro, and Stone (2016) defined fake news as ‘distortion’ rather than ‘filtering’ of information.

Fake news is not a contemporary phenomenon. It has a long history; for example, the “Great Moon Hoax” published in the New York Sun in 1835 concerning the discovery of organisms in the moon (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Similarly, in 2006, a Belgium television broadcasted a false report about Flemish parliament declaring independence from Belgium with many viewers believing it to be true (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Supermarket tabloids, such as the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer, have been publishing a mix of true and false stories (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Fake news has been used to arouse the curiosity of the public about a specific subject.

A significant number of people believe fake news. According to the polls conducted by the American Enterprise Institute (2013), a significant number of people believe fake news to be the truth about the subject matter (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). For instance, the polls revealed that a considerable amount of minorities believed the hoax that President Franklin Roosevelt had clues about the bombing of the Pearl Harbor before it occurred; and some, that Lyndon Johnson played a critical role in the murder of President Kennedy (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Other Americans believed that the US government played an active role in the September eleventh bombing of the trade centers in New York and that the former president Barrack Obama was born outside the United States.

Sources of Fake News

There are different sources of fake news. According to Allcott and Gentzkow (2017), the main source of such distorted information is various websites. Some websites are created to produce and publishing false and misleading reports and information. The names of most of such websites resemble those of legit ones, such as the denverguardian.com, wtoe5news.com, and endingthefed.com, among others. Some satirical sites are often filled with articles that can be construed as true but false when perceived within context. The ease of opening websites has increased the amount of fake news bombarding the users of social media. Subramanian (2017) claimed that investigations by the Guardian and BuzzFeed uncovered that over 100 of all the sites active in propagating fake news were administered by some adolescents and young people in Velez, Macedonia. One of the sites of the four of the most popular fake news propagated via Facebook, called Endingthefed.com, was run by a young Romania man (Townsend, 2016). An infamous company, based in the United States, called, Disinfomedia, owns several sites specialized in creating fake news, including WashingtonPost.Com.co, USAToday.com.co, and NationalReport.net (Sydell, 2016). The National Report site, owned by Paul Horner, was responsible for circulating fake news concerning the last election held in the US.  Specifically, the National Report site published multiple pro-Trump stories at the expense of Hillary Clinton (Dewey, 2016). Producers of such news have a lot to gain from their object of trade, which motivates them to disseminate the news via social media. Indeed, social media is the main target for these organizations – posts that go viral in a short time are a reliable source of advertisement revenues for these companies, as the news draws the attention of the reader to the source of the site, outside the SNS platform. Therefore, producers of fake news have a hidden motive.

Theoretical Framework

Various theories have been proposed to explain the appeal of social media for the propagation of fake news.  Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) proposed a theory suggesting multiple reasons for social media sites being conducive for spreading misleading information about a subject. Allcott and his colleague (2017) attributed preferences of social media for the propagation of fake news to the minimal cost of entering into the social media platform. It requires no subscription costs, besides being inexpensive to acquire a large audience within a short time. Also, the ease with which posted information can be shared among users of social media renders it suitable for spreading distorted information about a company, an individual, or a group. A post in social media can reach individuals who are not friends or followers of the sources of the fake news. This property of social media expedites the profitability of the short-term tactics the fabricators of fake news espouse, as it moderates the importance of amassing a reputation in the long-term (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Additionally, the thin slices of information characteristics of social media enable it to be read on phones and other portable gadgets. Moreover, friends networks on Facebook are ideologically segregated, with ideological similarities concerning their political and cultural affiliations (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). People in such networks are likely to review and share the news that is relevant to their orientation. As such, social media users who depend on social media for news are less likely to verify whether the sources of such news are credible. Facebookers and other social media users are less likely to look for proof of the authenticity of the posting they read in their social media accounts (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Social media are less likely sources of information that would refute an ideologically relevant but untrue storyline.

It is important to measure the value of social media platforms for producers and fake news. To this end, measuring the source of such users’ web traffic would provide valuable information to curb or eradicate the menace. The Internet users use different paths to visit a webpage, including direct navigation to the page by typing the pages URLs, from another site by referral, or through search engines. Social media are the most popular referral site because of the public obsessions and fascination with them. Social media is an important source of news for many Americans. Gottfried and Shearer (2016) found that 62% of adult Americans in the US use social media as their source of news. This proportion is classed further into those who use social media for news frequently (18%), those who use it sometimes (26%), and those who hardly read news from social media (18%). Furthermore, just 34% of adult Americans who use the web trust the news and the information they get from social media. However, social media referrals make up about 10% of the total traffic. Nonetheless, fake news websites capitalize on social media for a significantly higher share of the former traffic.

Methodology

            The amount of fake news exposed to the public differs depending on their access to various media outlets. Price and Zaller (1993) measured media exposure. Fake news poses a specific research challenge because it is more circulated on SNS newsfeed than other websites. A research design to answer the above question will specifically focus on the speed with which Facebook users share fake news without verifying the credibility of their sources. However, verification of sources of fake news is hard to track because of the challenges and the privacy issues related to monitoring the way people use their social media accounts. Thus, this research would seek to find the number of times fake news is read and shared on Facebook to estimate whether the readers verified the source of the news. Accordingly, Eventbrite (2012) found that connections to its events in Facebook produced 14-page visits for every share. A set of best stories on Facebook generate the same ratio of visits to share as of Eventbrite (2012). Other social media sites generate fewer shares per visits. For example, a Chinese SNS called Renren generated between 3 to 8 visits per share (Zhao, Wang, Tao, Ma & Guan, 2013). The high number of shares per views indicates the tendency of social media users to spread fake news without verifying the credibility of their sources. To compute the tendency of Facebook users to share fake news without verifying its truth, this study will divide the number of visits on Facebook by 14 to find the number of shares. The number of shares would be assumed to represent the tendency of the users to share fake news without verifying its truth.     

Data Collection Plan

            To collect data, browsers extensions installed on computers of the people who agree to take part in the study. These browser extensions will capture web traffic sources for the period of the study. However, this technology will be hard to apply on mobile phones the participants in the study will use. It will also exempt the headlines the participants will read on Facebook. Nevertheless, there are various limitations to this study that would compromise the validity of the results.

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