Know the source of so-called news you get on social media
Written by Michael Lewis on November 20, 2018
Campaigns abroad to undermine US institutions are not the only reason to doubt so-called news in social media. Well-meaning fellow citizens can, with the best intentions, also spread their own disinformation.
Russian operatives might act in concert, but a handful of neighbors on social media can unwittingly wash their own misinformation tsunamis over us.
The danger became clear at a Miami Beach meeting Oct. 31 as Police Chief Daniel Oates tried to dispel city commissioners’ concerns that Beach crime is on the rise. He offered figures showing double-digit drops year after year in victims’ reports of crime. But he had to battle several accounts on social media of individual crimes – accounts that some commissioners found more compelling evidence than the statistics.
“Somebody was carjacked, literally pulled out of their car on Pennsylvania and 12th Street, and we’re getting these types of reports often,” said Commissioner Kristen Rosen-Gonzalez, who expressed doubt that the falling crime statistics were as credible as tweets about individual crimes.
On the other hand, “the world of social media really does skew things and shines a light that amplifies things that are sometime quite small,” noted Commissioner John Elizabeth Aleman in the article Miami Today printed last week.
So should the city base policing decisions on a few tweets, true or not, or on official reports showing statistically that the policy is working?
And, from a broader concern in society, to what extent should the public trust social media for news?
The issues aren’t academic. The US Department of Homeland Security in March issued a 20-page paper on how police, fire and other first responders can and should counter false information on social media.
“One of the biggest challenges public safety agencies and organizations face is how to reduce or eliminate the spread of false information, especially as public demands for a response from these authorities increases,” the federal report states. “Social media can distribute news faster and to a wider audience than traditional news sources. However, that also means the potential for misinformation, false information and rumors to spread and go viral is high.”
And so Chief Oates in Miami Beach is under pressure to alter a plan that seems to reduce crime in order to meet demands that are skewed by messages on social media that might be incomplete, distorted, totally incorrect or amplified to meet specific aims of which recipients are unaware. Even if they are totally true, the messages generalize from a handful of instances to a large community.
The chief faces added headwinds based on how social media function.
“It took truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people” via Twitter, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study published in March in the journal Science.
The study found that it was not robots but ordinary Twitter users that spread most misinformation. It also found that unusual news, like particularly ghastly crimes, flew farther faster than the truth. “We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggest that people were more likely to share novel information,” the MIT study said – 70% more likely than sharing true news.
“Facebook, Google and Twitter function as a distribution mechanism, a platform for circulating false information and helping find receptive audiences,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College quoted last year in a New York Times science article.
Focus, please, on the words “distribution mechanism,” because while people may say they saw something on Facebook or Twitter, these are not the sources. They may move information and give extra circulation to whatever will draw millions of eyeballs, but Twitter and Facebook aren’t the reporters of news, the editors of news or the gatekeepers that – in traditional media – vet information for the basic standards of accuracy, fairness, relevance and decency.
So-called news on social media is only as credible as its original source. That may be a government agency, a trusted news organization, your next-door neighbor or a friend who means well but isn’t trained to report or vet news, a group with an ax to grind that skews information to its own viewpoint, or a Russian operation in Moscow with a nefarious intent.
You might not know which of those sources is producing the information you get, but you should care.
We doubt that Russia has yet taken to faking Miami Beach crime reports. But someone who tweets about a friend being a crime victim could unintentionally distort or embellish details that cause it to be re-tweeted over and over, or might elevate a simple burglary to an armed robbery.
Like city commissioners, I’m wary of police crime statistics. I’ve seen them manipulated to make police look like they’re doing better or worse than reality.
But I’m far more wary of turning incident reports by victims or third parties on social media into a valid picture of what is happening in a general sense in a city.
The MIT researchers noted that just over a century ago it was the rise of legitimate newspapers with ethics promoting objectivity and credibility that eradicated a serious false news problem of the day. We need a swing back to those ethical standards to counter the wave of false or distorted social media reports that too many of our fellow citizens now accept as news.
The bottom line: weigh any news report against the credibility of the source. To do otherwise could be criminal.