Today’s technology has given birth to advances in medicine, hybrid cars, image sensors, fire retardant paints, solar cells and many advances in how we communicate with each other, and the world.

Probably, the biggest impact on our daily lives are advances in communication. We have smartphones, fiber optic cables, satellites and the Internet. All these have changed the ease in which we communicate, but none have affected us more than the Internet.

From the Internet we get information and share information. Unfortunately, some of the information being shared is misinformation, misinformation that some believe is true.

People spread misinformation for various reasons. Sometimes they create misinformation just to see how many people they can fool, but sometimes this information is created to sway opinion or carry propaganda. The most dangerous information comes from people with authority, says Craig Silvermen of BuzzFeed.

“When people of authority use fake news it adds to its credibility.” When people of authority misinform us, whether unintentionally or purposefully, more people will believe it, no matter how bazaar.

A guy in Texas saw several busloads of people heading down a highway one day. He knew Donald Trump was holding a rally nearby, so he surmised those buses were filled with protesters on their way to disrupt the rally.

As it turns out, the people on the buses were not headed to the rally, but after the man posted a photo of the buses and commented on Twitter, people believed what he said was true. What was a completely false idea became a reality to millions of people, who reposted it and talked about it. Some websites picked up the story and moved the false information even further along.

Around the same time, maybe it had something to do with the man’s tweet, and maybe it didn’t, but a website was created by someone who offered jobs to protesters and would supposedly pay them $2,500 a day. To make it look more legitimate, they ran ads on Craigslist sites in different cities throughout the country.

The offer to pay people to protest was a false one, but it played into the hands of people who wanted to believe it. Silverman reports that Tucker Carlson of Fox News actually called the website out and reported the website was set up to spread misinformation, but by that time, other sites had picked up the information and spread the lie.

Another incident of misinformation, or fake news, came from made up Twitter accounts claiming Queen Elizabeth died. Their accounts were set up to look like they were a part of BBC News. The Queen had missed a couple of events due to illness, but she was not dead. However, since it seemed like it came from the BBC, many people believed it.

On Youtube, a video claiming there was a shark in Lake Ontario was completely false. They used part of a Public Relations campaign for Shark Week from the Discovery Channel to create the video. Some people didn’t think about it, or realize that sharks don’t swim in fresh water. A Hollywood movie seeking to promote a film, paid people to run fake news about their film – fake reviews and the like. These are just a few examples of fake news, you are likely aware of many more.

Propaganda – Intended or Unintended

Sometimes news websites write about rumors or unverified claims. Some websites even look like real news sites, like CBS or CNN, but every story on their page is fake news. These sites are pure propaganda seeking to fool you and help spread the lie.

“This is what hoaxers and people putting out propaganda really rely on, they want to fool you and they want you to help it spread,” Silverman says.

Even if we make a post on Facebook or Twitter that we believe is true and find out later it is not, we cannot take it back. We can delete the post, but most likely hundreds or even thousands may have seen it. We can debunk our story and say it was a mistake, but articles written trying to set the record straight rarely help. The debunking of a story seldom, if ever, gets the attention of the original.

Silverman says we need to, “really think about the role we’re playing in passing along information and realize that each little share, and each little like, helps propel that stuff even further.” Once the cat is let out of the bag, you can’t put it back in.

No Factual Content and Group Polarization

Memes are often a good example of content without facts. Memes seek an emotional response, but are not always enlisting facts. Memes that perform the best are not factual at all, but are meant to create a reaction, whether it be for humor or for anger. Appealing to people’s fears, beliefs or emotions equals a large engagement, and that is what it’s all about – getting more people to look at it, like it, comment on it and pass it on. Memes do have factual content, but more often than not, they are created to get an emotional response.

Silverman points out that as trust in the news media declines, people begin to look for other sources – other sources that are usually much less factual than the mainstream media.

Facebook has helped create something known as group polarization. We like to be around people who think like we do., and that’s perfectly normal. Facebook uses an algorithm to help people with  similarities connect. However, the more we are surrounded by people with the same beliefs as us, the more extreme out beliefs tend to become.

We need to expose ourselves to other opinions. We don’t have to accept them, but exposing ourselves to other opinions helps us to understand how those opinions are formed and may provide an opportunity to reshape those opinions more like our own. On the other hand, opposing opinions can sometimes help reshape our opinions too, which is not a bad thing at all. The more knowledge you gather the better you can define your own self and defend your own opinion.

Communication over the Internet today is a battle for attention. People want to follow what’s popular and be what’s popular, but people also need a shared set of facts in order to have real conversations each other. Opening a dialog with someone who doesn’t see the world as you do can open up a better view from both sides.

Remember, just because something creates an emotional response in you, or goes well with your personal beliefs, that doesn’t make it true. Check things out before you post or share because stopping fake news begins with you.

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