Internet Social Media and ‘Fake News’

Internet social media can be used to spread fake news, and their ‘echo chamber’ effect confirms people’s biases and increases polarisation.

More than half of the world’s population has access to the Internet.  As revealed by answers to the question How Much Time Do People Spend on Social Media?, the average Internet user spends more than two hours a day on social media: reading or creating content for others to read.  Facebook, Twitter, WeChat and Instagram each have more than a billion users.  With this size of audience, it is not surprising that advertisers of goods and services are interested in gaining access to people who might become customers – and the technology platforms are funded by advertising revenue.

Internet social media have become an increasingly important source of news for many people.  For example, a Pew Research survey, News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, found that “A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often”.  This pattern is a cause for concern, because it is largely unattributable and cannot be held to account; The Economist asked “Do social media threaten democracy?” and argued that they are “spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship”.

Commercial media organisations can be held to account and they want to retain their credibility – although there are exceptions ( – but people can publish outright lies or ‘fake news’ on Internet social media without being sued.  They pass stories on to others, and the story rapidly gains momentum: ‘going viral’.  A Guardian article, How technology disrupted the truth, explained in some detail how this led to “post-truth politics” in the British vote for Brexit.  As argued in a New York Times article entitled Am I imagining This?, ‘fake news’ also undermines American politics.

Although falsehoods have always been used in politics, ‘fake news’ is a new term; a BBC article, The (almost) complete history of ‘fake news’, credited Buzzfeed with coining the expression after investigating stories coming from a “town in Macedonia called Veles” in 2016 – where people were making money from them.  The term ‘click bait’ is used to describe messages which are so incendiary that people eagerly pass them to all their contacts.  Since Facebook carries advertising, which pays more on sites which receive a lot of clicks, it has a financial incentive to create fake news.

The algorithms used by social media companies tend to offer information to users based upon their past preferences – creating an ‘echo chamber’ effect where people only hear news that matches their existing attitudes.  “These effects are part of what is increasing America’s political polarisation”, according to an Economist article: Once considered a boon to democracy, social media have started to look like its nemesis.  And this problem is not confined to America: as the New York Times reported, Europe Combats a New Foe of Political Stability: Fake News.

As noted in the Netflix film, The Social Dilemma, “Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.”  A Facebook formula gave anger five times weight of likes, documents show, in evidence provided by a whistleblower, to the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress:

“A person was able to react with emojis that correlated to “angry,” “sad,” “haha,” “love” and “wow.”  If a person reacted with an emoji instead of the “like” button, the Facebook algorithm would see the post as five times more valuable and push similar content.”

Noah Charney explained the phenomenon of “confirmation bias”, which ensures that the human brain uncritically absorbs information that matches its existing views whilst tending to disbelieve or ignore information to the contrary; he related it to the 2016 American presidential election, in a Salon article: This is your brain on fake news: what’s behind the human willingness to swallow “alternative facts.  People’s viewpoints get reinforced, as more news of the same sort is fed to them, so they cannot believe that they have been misled.

Politicians now use Internet social media.  Political parties now advertise on Facebook and Donald Trump, for example, used Twitter extensively; during the American presidential election in 2016, he “routinely repeated false news stories … while urging his followers not to trust corrupt traditional media” – as reported in a Guardian article entitled Facebook’s failure: did fake news and polarized politics get Trump elected?.

As described below (, there have been calls for social media content to be regulated – to try to reduce their destabilising effect on democracy.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6426a.htm.