2016 was the year of ‘fake news’. Macquarie Dictionary even named it the word of the year for 2016 which is not surprising given the increasing squabbles Donald Trump had with the US media in the lead up to the election.


Media coverage and exposure of Trump and fake news over 6 months (28 August 2016 – 28 Februrary 2017)

While it’s by no means over, it makes you wonder why there’s such a clear division when it comes to issues like politics and science, across both social media and the news. And more importantly, where are people getting their facts from if the media are indeed publishing fake news?

To understand this divide however, it’s important to take a step back from Trump and look at who’s driving the news that we consume. Trump’s Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, was quoted across global media outlets back in January about press secretary Sean Spicer giving ‘alternative facts’ which most people interpreted as only using facts that help support his arguments.

This led to multiple debates across the world about the rise of alternative facts in politics — especially as its original phrase ‘newspeak’ was coined in George Orwell’s 1984, a book about a dystopian future with a tyrannical government.

Heat map of the countries that wrote about ‘alternative facts’ and the number of stories published in the week following Kellyanne Conway’s quote (22 January – 29 January 2017)

However, the whole concept of alternative facts is more prevalent than you may think. Climate change is a good example — a debate that’s been ongoing for over a decade, and still exists today. Skeptics of the melting ice caps and increase in world temperatures often look for ‘research’ and ‘data’ that supports their own argument, often ignoring experts and scientific evidence that tell them otherwise.

While the use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’ arose recently, it’s something that all individuals have been partaking in more and more, often unintentionally, with the rise of the Internet.

Social media platforms like Facebook and search engines like Google have allowed us to choose and unconsciously be bias with the news that is delivered to us for consumption, filtering information through the use of bots and algorithms that ultimately support and propagate a certain viewpoint. The friends and pages we follow align with our own views, and it’s as simple as unfriending or unliking a page if we disagree with what they post. Searches on Google can also be filtered in a way that only brings up certain results.

“Like this page — here’s a few similar ones that you may also like.”

Donald Trump is not the tyrant here when it comes to the rise of fake news and alternative facts, he’s just become the figurehead in an age where information — regardless of whether it’s fake or factual — is filtered by bots that base their selections on what you’ve previously liked, shared, viewed or searched.

If you take a look at your Facebook feed or recent likes, what do you see? A balanced selection of objective journalism, or article after article that supports your own viewpoints?

Facebook and Google have the power to change the way we consume news to ensure that the stories we see are unfiltered and unbiased. Both platforms have started to recognise the need for more proactive filtering, following the backlash about their complacency during the US election last year.

While Facebook is making an attempt to better filter fake news with the introduction of their Journalism Project, the program doesn’t actually list the need to address the role of bots as one of its priorities. Perhaps objective journalism just does not result in the number of clicks and engagement required to appease the businesses and brands that are paying for the eyeballs.

Digital has had a huge impact on traditional news mediums, and now social is disrupting the former two. While it’s not possible to read the billions of conversations happening across social media and what is being published online, there are platforms and steps that any individual, business or brand can take to ensure they don’t fall completely down the rabbit hole, allowing them to always make a more informed decision.

Objective journalism may be harder and harder to find, so you must be smarter about the content you consume.

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