The real reason why fake news spreads like wildfire on social media

Misinformation is like a virus that has infected social media platforms, spreading far and wide with alarming speed. It is often blamed on people’s inability to analyse information correctly. But a new study from USC and Yale has revealed a deeper problem. The very structure of these platforms is driving the habitual sharing of fake news on social media, with users giving little consideration to accuracy. This begs the question: how can we tackle misinformation effectively?

The study found that habitual sharing of fake news on social media is driven by platform cues. Consequently, users give little consideration to the accuracy of what they share. Whilst political bias and critical reflection do play a role, it’s the user’s habits that have the most significant impact. The study found it triples the amount of fake news shared amongst some users. In fact, just 15% of the most habitual news sharers were responsible for spreading around 30% to 40% of fake news. It is no wonder that misinformation is so prevalent on social media platforms that users are encouraged to post and share frequently, especially sensational information.

Why is there so much fake news on social media?

Proposals to reduce fake news on social media may be ineffective if they do not address the root of the problem. That is the reward system of social media platforms. Instead, the researchers suggest incentivising accuracy rather than popularity to promote accurate information sharing. Two of the proposed interventions are algorithmic de-prioritisation of unverified news content and disrupting habitual news sharing by adding confirmation buttons. For example, they could add confirmation buttons that require content creators to confirm that they understand the potential consequences of sharing a post.

Girl sitting in the dark looking through her phone, exposed to fake news on social media

Can we trust social media platforms to reduce fake news?

The solution to the problem of fake news on social media cannot rely solely on social media giants making changes. The biggest mistake is to think social media companies will fix this soon. The internet is over 30 years old. The issues that were identified in the 90s still remain. We need experts like scientists and medical professionals to build their online capabilities and knowledge. With over 200 ranking factors for Google alone it is difficult, but the more skilled they are, the more we can drown out this bad information.

How can you grow when there is so much fake news on social media?

As a healthcare agency, we only work with health companies with proven credentials to help them optimise their website visibility and social media presence. Yet, the challenge for many of these organisations is the ability to market themselves. Oftentimes, they are driven by their cause and the science that backs their offering. The same applies to other industries. To effectively grow across digital channels organisations must invest in the right skills and technology. This can be achieved in several ways from building a highly capable and empowered team to outsourcing to experts. Critically, they must be able to go beyond the technical components of their offering and understand the role of emotional storytelling.

With the right skills, coompanies can be seen beyond the fake news on social media

Taking the next steps

The rise of misinformation and fake news on social media platforms is like a wildfire raging out of control, with no end in sight. It is imperative that social media companies are better regulated and reward users for sharing accurate information. It is an issue that must be addressed before it becomes even more pervasive. Yet, in the meantime, science-backed health organisations need to invest in their online capabilities. If they do not, they will continue to be drowned out by fake news on social media.


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