Stop Sharing Fake Political Crap on Facebook

November 02, 2016

As Facebook assumes the role of our public forum, most people currently see their walls cluttered with posts about the election. I don't mind people sharing their thoughts. That's part of a healthy democracy. But I'm tired of people posting inaccurate "news" items from unreliable websites. 


As long as we agree on the facts, we can have a healthy conversation even when disagreeing on interpretation. For instance, we can disagree on whether Donald Trump is right that we should build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or whether Hillary Clinton is right that we should welcome more Syrian refugees. But if we disagree about what is even true, then we have a real problem. 

A benefit of the Internet is the fact anyone can post (and therefore you can get great websites like this one!). But that's also a problem with the Internet as it allows people to post conspiracy theories or lies as "news." This problem is amplified by our tendency to seek out sites that confirm our own biases. So we believe that crazy story about how horrible the candidate we oppose is because we already oppose that candidate. Thus, conservatives visit conservative websites bashing Clinton and liberals visit liberal websites bashing Trump. But many people on both sides confuse the partisan sites as actual news. Scholars call this the "balkanization" of the news, using a metaphor of how the Balkans region in Europe splintered along ethnic lines in the 1990s amid war and genocide.

My Ph.D. is in political communication. And I've covered lots of political events as a credentialed journalist, including several presidential candidate rallies, a nominating convention, a presidential debate, and more. So I find it particularly concerning when people try to rig the news with fake stories.


Too often people share false claims as actual news - and not just on Facebook. Fox News pundit Sean Hannity did it on Tuesday as he claimed on his radio program that President Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats withdrew their support of Clinton. It should've seemed too good to be true, but, as an ardent Trump supporter, Hannity wanted it to be true so he shared it without taking the necessary 30-seconds to fact-check it. CNN did a great job tracking how, "like game of telephone," this and other "fake news stories expand and spread from fringe web sites to nationally syndicated radio shows with millions of listeners." Making matters worse, Facebook this year replaced human editors with an algorithm for its "trending news" feed and fake stories started making the list.

There are so many political hoaxes spreading now that a Washington Post news blog runs a feature multiple times a week on "what was fake on the Internet this election." Other fact-checking sites like Politifact.com, FactCheck.org, and Snopes.com also run pieces on fake political stories trending on Facebook. 

I thought about naming untrustworthy sites, but sadly there are so many and they are quickly growing in number (and unfortunately also growing in popularity). But here are a couple of tests. 
  • If a site is always posting bad news about one party and good news about the other, it's a biased site that shouldn't be trusted. 
  • If you google a story (before sharing it on Facebook) and find it's been debunked, it's a likely biased site that shouldn't be trusted. 
  • If you google a story and find no coverage from mainstream news outlets (like Washington Post, NPR, Politico, etc.), it's likely a biased site that shouldn't be trusted. 
I've seen multiple posts on Facebook that come from disreputable sites that have already been debunked by independent sites tracking political discourse. But we see the headline and it enters our minds as if it's just as reliable as actual news. That's the point. Partisans post false claims in hopes it will distort the way we view reality. When we share their pieces, we are accomplices in their deception. Brian Stelter of CNN's Reliable Sources offers some tips in a good video report about the need to "triple check before you share."


I'm particularly concerned when Christians share false stories from unreliable websites. We are called in the Ten Commandments not to bear false witness against our neighbor - and that includes the political candidate you most dislike. We should be people of truth. Sharing false stories is not only wrong, but could also damage our witness (especially with our friends who see the post but have already seen the claim debunked).

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves," Jesus warned. "Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."

As we share false stories, we join the wolves. If you're not sure if a story you see online is true, don't post it. Just put up a photo of your kid or grandkid or dog or something cute. We could really use more cuteness right now anyway.

Oh, and this post is completely true, so please post it (and feel free to tag your friends who need this advice)!

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