In the age of social media, the notions of truth, information, and knowledge are all changing. These notions were once amorphous and invisible – the kinds of airy, invisible topics only philosophers and a few scientists studied. But today truth, information, and knowledge are all represented, constructed, and battled about online. Page views, shares, and reactions clue individuals and companies in to what spreads from machine to machine and mind to mind. Content editable by users online is negotiated and changed in real time. In this chapter we’ll look at the problems and opportunities afforded by social media in relationship with truths and knowledge.
“Fake news” and “post-truth”
Much has been made in recent years of “.” This is a term, favored by the President of the United States among others, that circulates ubiquitously through social as well as traditional media. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries presented “post-truth” as its “word of the year.” But what do these terms mean, and what do they have to do with social media?
To understand these terms, we have to look closely at what we expect with the word “news” and notions of truth and “fake”-ness. These conversations start with the concepts of objectivity and subjectivity.
Years ago, news and ideas spread day by day rather than in seconds with one click of a button. Newspapers and letters were the way that people were informed about the latest news and drama. Now, with technology advancing and , things are changing.
We, humans, are always moving fast, looking at the easiest way to do things and with social media and the internet, it seems like spreadability is at an all-time high. There are many positives that come with social media and the rate at how fast word can travel such as texting your parents whenever you miss them or face-timing your significant other when doing long distance. If you were to go back to the 20s you would see that people would read the newspaper to hear the latest news or wait for letters to see how a loved one is doing. Nowadays within two minutes of a celebrity’s death, the whole internet is informed. If a political party is angry a hashtag can bring them all together to meet at a destination and begin a protest. With easy access to information, whether it is true or false, the way that social media spreads has a huge impact on society. Some people would say that the world is the most divided that it has ever been because of this while others say that social media brings us together.
When people talk about social media there are many different topics like politics, memes, films, clubs, sports, and many others, and in most of these categories, there is .
With social media and the easy way to access information and news, everyone seems to know everything that is going on. Due to this, there are many different sides of things like conservatives and liberals, Clippers fans and Lakers Fans, Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, Animal Advocates and Realists, and many more. Since there are many different sides and opinions, many things that are said by opposing opinions are called fake news. This is a topic that is brought up a lot when it comes to politics and clashing political views. Usually, when someone is passionate about something like a political side, their computers will use algorithms to keep their social media feeds full of this information
In today’s world, with social media and the fast speed that information spreads, everyone seems to have an answer for everything. This could be good or bad. It adds a deeper division between people with different opinions while also bringing people together or informing others of new information. Within the last few chapters, we have learned how fast social media spreads and the different ways that information is shared. It has also allowed me to learn that I should be careful about what I post and say on social media because it can spread information or pictures to anyone in the world. Social media is the middle man and divider to many issues and spreadability is the key ingredient to share it on a bigger scale.
About the Author
Jenna Wing is an animal lover, filmmaker and student at The University of Arizona. She is a girl that loves to have a camera in her hand to make short films on almost everything.
Objectivity and subjectivity
To be objective is to present a truth in a way that would also be true for anyone anywhere; so that truth exists regardless of anyone’s perspective. The popular notion of what is true is often based on this expectation of objective truth.
The expectation of objective truth makes sense in some situations – related to physics and mathematics, for example. However, humans’ presentations of both current and historic events have always been subjective – that is, one or more subjects with a point of view have presented the events as they see or remember them. When subjective accounts disagree, journalists and historians face a tricky process of figuring out why the accounts disagree, and piecing together what the evidence is beneath subjective accounts, to learn what is true.
Multiple truths = knowledge production
In US society, we have not historically thought about knowledge as being a negotiation among multiple truths. Even at the beginning of the 21st century, the production of knowledge was considered the domain of those privileged with the highest education – usually from the most powerful sectors of society. For example, when I was growing up, the Encyclopedia Britannica was the authority I looked to for general information about everything. I did not know who the authors were, but I trusted they were experts.
Enter Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and everything changed.
The first version of Wikipedia was founded on a more similar model to the Encyclopedia Britannica than it is now. It was called Nupedia, and only experts were invited to contribute. But then one of the co-founders, Jimmy Wales, decided to try a new model of knowledge production based on the concept of collective intelligence, written about by Pierre Lévy. The belief underpinning collective intelligence, and Wikipedia, is that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something. Everyone was invited to contribute to Wikipedia. And everyone still is.
When many different perspectives are involved, there can be multiple and even conflicting truths around the same topic. And there can be intense competition to put forth some preferred version of events. But the more perspectives you see, the more knowledge you have about the topic in general. And the results of negotiation between multiple truths can be surprisingly accurate when compared with known truths. A 2005 study in the prominent journal Nature comparing the accuracy of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia found they had around the same numbers of errors and levels of accuracy.
What are truths?
And the third ingredient of a truth? That is you, the human reader. As an interpreter, and sometimes sharer/spreader of online information and “news”, you must keep an active mind. You are catching up with that truth in real-time. Is it true, based on evidence available to you from your perspective? Even if it once seemed true, has evidence recently emerged that reveals it to not be true? Many truths are not true forever; as we learn more, what once seemed true is often revealed to not be true.
Truths are not always profitable, so they compete with a lot of other types of content online. As a steward of the world of online information, you have to work to keep truths in circulation.
Why people spread “fake news” and bad information
“Fake news” has multiple meanings in our culture today. When politicians and online discussants refer to stories as fake news, they are often referring to news that does not match their perspective. But there are news stories generated today that are better described as “fake” – based on no evidence.
So why is “fake news” more of an issue today than it was at some points in the past?
Well, historically “news” has long been the presentation of information on current events in our world. In past eras of traditional media, a much smaller number of people published news content. There were codes of ethics associated with journalism, such as the Journalist’s Creed written by Walter Williams in 1914. Not all journalists followed this or any other code of ethics, but in the past, those who behaved unethically were often called out by their colleagues and unemployable with trusted news organizations.
Today, thanks to Web 2.0 and social media sites, nearly anyone can create and widely circulate stories branded as news; the case study of a story by Eric Tucker in this New York Times lesson plan is a good example. And the huge mass of “news” stories that results involves stories created based on a variety of motivations. This is why Oxford Dictionaries made the term post-truth their word of the year for 2016.
People or agencies may spread stories as news online to:
- spread truth
- influence others
- generate profit
Multiple motivations may drive someone to create or spread a story not based on evidence. But when spreading truth is not one of the story creators’ concerns, you could justifiably call that story “fake news.” I try not to use that term these days though; it’s too loaded with politics. I prefer to call “news” unconcerned with truth by its more scientific name…
Think I’m bullshitting you when I say is the scientific name for fake news? Well, I’m not. There are information scientists and philosophers who study different types of bad information, and here are some of basic overviews of their classifications for bad information:
- = inaccurate information; often spread without intention to deceive
- = information intended to deceive
- bullshit = information spread without concern for whether or not it’s true
Professors Kay Mathiesen and Don Fallis at the University of Arizona have written that much of the “fake news” generated in the recent election season was bullshit, because producers were concerned with winning influence or profit or both, but were unconcerned with whether it was true.
Bugs in the human belief system
We believe bullshit, fake news, and other types of deceptive information based on numerous interconnected human behaviors. Forbes recently presented an article, Why Your Brain May Be Wired To Believe Fake News, which broke down a few of these with the help of the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. Levitin cited two well-researched human tendencies that draw us to swallow certain types of information while ignoring others.
- One tendency is : You want to keep believing what you already believe, treasuring a preexisting belief like Gollum treasures the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.
- The other tendency is : the brain runs through the text of something to select the pieces of it that confirm what you think is already true, while knocking away and ignoring the pieces that don’t confirm what you believe.
These tendencies to believe what we want to hear and see are exacerbated by social network-enabled filter bubbles (described in Chapter 4 of this book.) When we get our news through social media, we are less likely to see opposing points of view, which social networking sites filter out, and which we are unlikely to see on our own.
There is concern that youth and students are particularly vulnerable to believing deceptive online content. But I believe that with some training, youth are going to be better at “reading” than those older than them. Youth are accustomed to online content layered with pictures, links, and insider conversations and connections. The trick to “reading” in the age of social media is to read all of these layers, not just the text.
Dr. Daly’s steps to “reading” social media news stories in 2020:
- Put aside your biases. Recognize and put aside your belief perseverance and your confirmation bias. You may want a story to be true or untrue, but you probably don’t want to be fooled by it.
- Read the story’s words AND its pictures. What are they saying? What are they NOT saying?
- Read the story’s history AND its sources. Who / where is this coming from? What else has come from there and from them?
- Read the story’s audience AND its conversations. Who is this source speaking to, and who is sharing and speaking back? How might they be doing so in coded ways? (Here‘s an example to make you think about images and audience, whether or not you agree to Filipovic’s interpretation.)
- Before you share, consider fact-checking. Reliable fact-checking sites at the time of this writing include:
That said – no one fact-checking site is perfect.; neither is any one news site. All are subjective and liable to be taken over by partisan interests or trolls.
a term recently popularized by politicians to refer to stories they do not agree with
inaccurate information spread without the intention to deceive
information intended to deceive those who receive it
information spread without concern for whether or not it’s true
the negotiation of multiple truths as a way of understanding or “knowing” something
the human tendency for the brain to run through the text of something to select the pieces of it that confirm what you think is already true, while knocking away and ignoring the pieces that don’t confirm what you believe
the human tendency to want to continue believing what you already believe
Health care providers are just one trusted source of information for parents on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for children. Cavan Images/Cavan via Getty Images
, , and , University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences
Since COVID-19 vaccines became available for children ages 5 to 11 in early November 2021, many families have been lining up to get their school-age kids vaccinated prior to holiday travel and gatherings.
As of Dec. 14, 5.6 million U.S. children ages 5 to 11 – or about 19% of this age group – have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And 2.9 million, or about 10% of this age group, are fully vaccinated.
However, the pace has begun to slow. Vaccination rates in this age group vary widely across the country, and the U.S. is still far from reaching a threshold that would help keep COVID-19 infections in check.
We are a team of medical and public health professionals at the University of Pittsburgh. We have extensive experience researching vaccine misinformation on social media and working with community partners to address vaccine hesitancy, counter misinformation and promote vaccine equity.
Analysis of the world, from experts
Through this work, we have seen and studied the ways that anti-vaccine activists on social media target vulnerable parents who are trying to navigate the challenges of digesting health information to make appropriate choices for their children.
Social media and vaccine misinformation
Anti-vaccine activists are a small but vocal group. According to research conducted by the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate, just 12 social media accounts – the “disinformation dozen” – are behind the majority of anti-vaccine posts on Facebook. Studies also show that only about 2% of parents reject all vaccines for their children. A larger group, or about 20% of parents, can more accurately be described as vaccine hesitant, which means they are undecided about having their children receive vaccines as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention.
With regard to COVID-19 vaccines specifically, as of October 2021, about one-third of parents with children ages 5 to 11 years said they would get their child vaccinated right away. Another one-third said they would wait to see how the vaccine is working, and the last one-third said they would definitely not get their child vaccinated.
It can be difficult for parents to sort through the large amount of information available about COVID-19 vaccines – both true and untrue. In their search for answers, some parents turn to social media platforms. The problem is, these parents are often targeted by anti-vaccine activists who are better organized and more skilled at tailoring their messages to the varied concerns of people who are vaccine hesitant in comparison to pro-vaccine activists.
Social media, in particular, has been a primary vehicle for the spread of misinformation. Although sometimes misinformation is blatantly false, other times it is more like a game of telephone. A kernel of truth gets modified slightly as it is retold, which ends up becoming something untrue. Unfortunately, exposure to COVID-19 misinformation has been shown to reduce people’s intent to get vaccinated.
Addressing parents’ vaccine concerns
So how can pediatricians and other health care professionals empower parents to feel confident in the choice to get their children vaccinated for COVID-19?
The answer may lie in working with communities to promote the vaccine as trustworthy instead of simply asking communities to trust it. We are part of the Pittsburgh Community Vaccine Collaborative, which is a community-academic partnership that seeks to ensure equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Through that effort, we have focused on building trustworthiness of the vaccines and of the providers and health systems that are offering the vaccines in their communities.
Health care providers are a trusted source of information for COVID-19 vaccine information, but they are not the only sources. Research has found that it is important to lean on the expertise and voices of community partners, community health workers and religious leaders.
Our research suggests that pediatricians and public health professionals can effectively use social media to promote vaccination and provide families with reputable scientific information to address their questions and concerns. Results of a survey that was recently published in Academic Pediatrics found that 96% of parents used social media. Of those, 68% reported using it for health information.
Social media is also an effective way to reach adolescents who can decide for themselves if they want to get a COVID-19 vaccine without their parents’ consent (in some cities and states). Adolescents may also be able to influence their parents.
Research shows that parents who report high COVID-19 vaccine intention for themselves also report high COVID-19 vaccine intention for their children. Therefore, talking about vaccines as a family may be helpful in combating misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, parents who have had their children vaccinated can use social media to share their experiences and make it feel more normal and accepted among their peers.
We have also learned that promoting media literacy, which encourages people to question the media information they come into contact with, can empower parents to sift through the “infodemic” of COVID-19 vaccine information. While social media platforms have announced policies of removing vaccine misinformation, research suggests this is not always effective at reducing the influence of such misinformation. Learning how to find the source of a piece of information and thinking about who are the intended targets may help people determine whether the information is true or distorted.
Addressing COVID-19 vaccine misinformation can feel overwhelming. The American Academy of Pediatrics has helpful information for parents to support making decisions around the COVID-19 vaccine. Parents can also have conversations with their children about media literacy and evaluating information. And they can talk to their children – especially adolescent-age children – about how getting the COVID-19 vaccine can protect them and others.
Increasing COVID-19 vaccine rates for children and young people is important to promote their health and wellness, as well as to move closer to ending the pandemic.
- infographic_lies_spread_faster_with_cclicense © Diana Daly is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- quality_bullshit © Doug Beckers is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- FakeNews_PublicDomainReview_Flickr © The Public Domain Review is licensed under a Public Domain license
- 1024px-Sadie_Wendell_Mitchell,_”Dig”,_1909 © Sadie Wendell Mitchell is licensed under a Public Domain license
- USA, Missouri, St. Louis
a term recently popularized by politicians to refer to stories they do not agree with
the affordance that it's nearly effortless to share content posted online; the ability for media to be spread to many people, who may then choose to use, modify, and/or spread it further
Inaccurate information that is spread without the intention to deceive.
Information intended to deceive those who receive it.
Information spread without concern for whether or not it's true
The human tendency for the brain to run through the text of something to select the pieces of it that confirm what you think is already true, while knocking away and ignoring the pieces that don't confirm what you believe.
The human tendency to want to continue believing what you already believe.
The negotiation of multiple truths as a way of understanding or "knowing" something