Social media has become so pervasive in our lives that a new study by the Pew Research Center found over two out of three Americans (68 percent) now get at least some of their news from these platforms, like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. Yet in an indictment of what is actually passing as “news” on social media these days, a majority (57 percent) of those who consume news on these sites say they expect the news they find there to be largely inaccurate.
Today, in the midst of the Social Media Era, lies in the form of fake news can gain critical mass faster than ever, with potentially dire consequences for public policy and global health.
There is ample reason for concern, as a study by MIT scholars published in the March edition of Science Magazine concluded. The authors studied all 126,000 news stories on Twitter that were verified as true or false from 2006-2017. These stories were tweeted by 3 million people over 4.5 million times, and the findings are alarming: Fake news spread “significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” with false political news being especially vulnerable. The authors found fake news to be more “novel” and inspired “fear, disgust and surprise,” powerful emotional triggers that caused Twitter users to rapidly spread false stories much faster than true news.
The prevalence of fake news on social media, and consumers’ willingness to share such stories even while mistrusting their accuracy, is ripe for exploitation by those with nefarious agendas. Perhaps the most dangerous of these fringe campaigns that have gone mainstream is the anti-vaccination movement. The “anti-vaxxers,” led it seems by celebrities who believe vaccines cause autism, have unfortunately made major strides in recent years, although there is precisely zero scientific evidence for their arguments. Yet social media has greatly aided the rise of the anti-vaxxer cause, especially given the nature of their hyperbolic rants, to the point where mere noise is trumping settled science.
This is exacerbated by the fact that anti-vaxxers occupy both ends of the political spectrum, from libertarians who view vaccination as a “personal choice” to liberals who favor “alternative medicine” and loathe the pharmaceutical companies that produce the vaccines. Worst of all, there is much evidence to suggest these people are succeeding: Research has found that vaccine refusal led to the Disney measles outbreak of 2014-2015, and the more recent outbreak in Minnesota in 2017.
One of the most famous anti-vaxxers, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has also branched out to crusading against GMOs by helping win a preliminary $289 million jury decision against Monsanto over glyphosate, an herbicide used in its best-selling Roundup weed killer product. While the ultimate fate of this and many other court cases regarding glyphosate will take years to settle, much of the argument made by Kennedy and attorneys for the plaintiff, who claimed Roundup caused his cancer, rests upon shaky science. It stems from a 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, that claimed glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Yet a Reuters investigation of the IARC’s report discovered that the agency “dismissed and edited” findings that directly contradicted the report’s conclusions, which strongly suggests political, not scientific, motives. Moreover, the IARC findings contradict those of the European Food Safety Authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others that found that glyphosate does not pose risks to humans. At the very least, the glyphosate issue is unsettled and requires more study.
This lawsuit seems to be less about glyphosate and much more about the anti-GMO crowd and their hatred of Monsanto, even though a Pew Research Center study found that 88 percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and 92 percent of working Ph.D. biomedical scientists said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods. Those figures are on a par with the number of experts who agree on the scientific evidence of climate change.
Social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter certainly have an obligation to pull fake news stories (not to be confused with legitimate opinion pieces espousing views they may disagree with) from their sites, but the responsibility is not theirs alone. At a time when it’s too easy for false information to go viral, scientists, public policy experts and political leaders must help shut down and shout down these claims before they can morph into actual movements and cause real damage.
Demetrios Karoutsos is a political and public affairs strategist who has worked on a number of congressional, gubernatorial and Senate campaigns.
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