Multiple factors breed false information on social media

By HU HONGCHAO / 03-11-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Visitors try out new smart home technologies at the 2020 Shanghai Smart Home Technology. As the connection between human social networks and the Internet of Things expands, the production setting for false information also diversifies, creating more impediments for network governance. Photo: SSHP

Social media is a complex and dynamic landscape full of a wide range of information. As social media apps gain popularity as news-sharing platforms, we have also seen them become tools for the circulation of false information. Therefore, detecting and tracking fake news and misinformation, and tackling them with precision and strategy have become heated topics in false information governance, which is an important part of network governance today. 

Diverse content makers
With the rapid development of social media and the mobile internet, traditional media has embarked on the road of media convergence. As traditional media strives to transform and upgrade itself, moving towards new media, commercial new media, and platform-based social media or “We media” are also catching up with traditional media in terms of professionalism, discourse power, cooperation models, and social networks.
In addition to the aforementioned content makers, social media is flooded with individual users who, unlike professional and highly-information-literate traditional media, produce arbitrary content without editorial approval. Regardless of whether the actual operators behind such social media accounts are individuals or organizations, this group by all means comprises the majority of users on current social media platforms.
In sum, social media platforms pool together various types and styles of content producers, inevitably resulting in differentiated information quality.
Interest-driven behavior
Social networking sites connect people from all over the world. They use the internet to communicate with each other about their findings and interests, leading to the propagation of information through vast social networks that extend far beyond traditional networks determined by geography and personal relations. The result is an explosive growth in the sheer volume of content online. This content is considerably more than any person can possibly filter through in order to find what he or she will like, thus causing information overload. Amid the vast ocean of information, false information finds its shelter.
At the same time, the staggering amount of online behavioral data gives rise to another widespread internet ecology—attention economics, which pursues online traffic and subscriptions. Attention economics considers awareness, recognition, and action to be integral to economic decision-making. In the face of information’s rapid growth, few websites truly impact users and leave an impression, causing attention scarcity. Therefore, content providers vie for people’s limited attention by resorting to a number of strategies which aim to maximize the amount of attention devoted to their websites.
In this light, clickbait and “misinformation marketers” emerge and become ubiquitous in social media and online. Clickbait refers to advertisements that deliberately alter text, content, pictures, or links by means of fabrication, exaggeration, distortion, and sensationalism to attract user attention. It is a popular method used by those who produce false information. Misinformation marketers are social media public account producers and operators who intend to grab traffic for profits, in China they are often involved in smear campaigns. A common practice is to post fabricated information and then pay internet trolls and “zombie fans” (fake accounts) to attract or divert netizens, disrupting the network information environment, with the goal of manipulating public opinion. 
The chaos of clickbait and marketing accounts originates from the clash between scarce attention resources and excessive online information. Creating and spreading false information is a malicious act which competes for attention in order to obtain economic interests.
In the internet era, there is a universal acknowledgement that users = traffic = money, and with effective marketing strategies, user engagement can be created and stimulated, so that the traffic can be translated into profits. 
Such market logic has fueled greed for “100,000 + click posts,” “viral products,” and “viral news,” luring some content producers to produce false information and launch smear campaigns with little hesitation. Thus, a vicious cycle is formed: with traffic, there is profit, which in turn relies on traffic to gain more profit. Whether the information is true or false, some content producers don’t really care. 
Smart platforms
With the advent of 5G communication technology, an increasingly prominent trend of media intellectualization is growing, and human-to-human and human-machine relationships and cooperation are becoming closer. 
Comprehensive machine intervention in content production breaks the shackles of time and space. However, it comes with a downside, a machine’s counterfeiting ability is extremely strong, with fast replication. While 5G technology eliminates impediments to information transmission, machines can easily manufacture false information en masse, without real-time human monitoring, and post this onto various social media platforms and applications around the clock.
In recent years, a more formidable technology has entered the public eye: deepfakes. Deepfakes rely on facial mapping technologies to create hyper-realistic videos digitally manipulated to depict people saying and doing things that never actually happened. The process involves feeding footage of two people into a deep learning algorithm to train it to swap faces. Deepfakes are difficult to detect, as they use real footage, can have authentic-sounding audio, so many viewers assume that what they see is genuine. The confusion and damage deepfakes might inflict on society should not be underestimated.
Another manifestation of media intellectualization is the expansion of the Internet of Things’ efficient networks. Social relationships between people are not reserved exclusively to social media platforms. The definition and boundaries of social media platforms will change in the future, as the Internet of Things extends digital networks.
For example, people may carry out online social networking through smart home devices, connecting human social networks with the Internet of Things. Correspondingly, as the social scene is diversified, so is the scene for producing false information. In the end, one piece of false information can be generated in multiple digital spaces at once, at a faster speed and with wider reach.
Post-truth era
The term “post-truth” was named word of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionary and defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It does not mean that people are rejecting truth, but goes beyond the truth to incorporate the effects of other factors, such as emotions, perceptions, experiences, and the audience’s belief systems. 
In the post-truth era, information oscillates between objective truth and fiction, or what we call “emotional reality.” The ontology of “truth” is a mixture of objective facts, subjective facts, and noise. Facts that cater to growing sentiments are selected or created, and then packed with emotions to reconstruct the “truth.” The value constructed by such “truth,” in turn, invokes an emotional response and then affects the “truth.”
The formation and development of post-truth cannot be divorced from social media. In the era of traditional mass media, media outlets value objectivity and strive to present the public with the whole story. With the emergence of social media, decentralization and fragmentation have become the norm for information transmission, and it is not easy to piece together fragments of truth to quickly restore the complete truth. 
Meanwhile, social media greatly increases the rate of information production and transmission, making real-time content production a common practice in the search for truth. News or events that have the potential to influence the public can move from sparks to a fire within a short period of time.
However, there is no accurate filtering process for the dissemination of information on social media, therefore, unverifiable news can affect the public within no time. Nowadays, users are left to check the reality of such information and make value judgments based on intuition, personal experiences, and emotional appeals. 
Social media’s foundation is made of social networks and interpersonal communications. In human-centered networking, contents and topics that are most likely to resonate with the audience revolve around emotions and sentiments. Due to the powerful effects of interpersonal communication in social media, emotions will be amplified and influenced in the process of communication. 
In general, social media and the post-truth era intertwine and interact. As social media takes down the traditional order and mechanisms of truth production, it fails to create a new one, thus giving rise to a post-truth reality.
Hu Hongchao is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China.
Edited by YANG XUE