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Fake news on social media: Whose responsibility is it?

Ever shared something on social media before realizing it was fake?

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I have, and according to Ericsson's latest research, it turns out we're not alone. The latest ConsumerLab report, #OMG social media is here to stay, reveals that over half of social media users say they have read fake news on social media, and over a quarter have liked or shared it, without even knowing it was fake.

When different actors spread misinformation, either purposefully or mistakenly, they are potentially endangering the very fabric of our societies. This danger which, as we speak, is being discussed quite intensely across the U.S., makes me wonder: what can we do to minimize the dangers that social media expose us to?

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Listen to the author and her co-author, André Gualda, discuss their key findings on social media and fake news in this episode of the Ericsson News Podcast.

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Can we trust social media?

For me, social media has become the best way to get news. On Facebook, I can read news from my favorite newspapers every day. On Twitter, by following top European and Swedish public figures, I can read their opinions about various events before they get picked up by journalists. On LinkedIn, I keep track on the latest business and tech developments and follow discussions in my professional communities. I appreciate social media for giving me an opportunity to stay informed on the latest news simply by scrolling through my newsfeeds. At the same time, for me, social media has become a place where I can get equally disinformed. And worse still, I too have been guilty of sharing news that I later learned to be fake.

Rumors, fake news and other data privacy issues might always have existed, so why are we talking so much about it now – and why the sudden considerable attention in the media?

The extent of untrustworthy information on social media is concerning, and recent events have certainly put social media under question. The cause for concern is not surprising given that many consumers rely heavily on social media for news. In the U.S., for example, 67 percent of survey participants say they get their news from social media in general, and 45 percent say they get it from Facebook alone. The situation in Europe is a little better but still cause for concern. In the EU, 13 percent of consumers say they stay up to date on European politics via social media, with the figure rising to 16 percent regarding domestic politics. In Sweden and Denmark, social media serves as the main source of information for 30 percent of consumers.

Yet, in spite of these high figures, there is evidence to suggest that consumers are sceptical about information on social media. According to our latest ConsumerLab report, less than one in five trust information they read on social media.

Trolls, bots and privacy breaches

So, for our own safety, should we just give up social media altogether? Recent viral news of data breaches, together with other problems including addiction, cyber bullying, identity theft, trolls and bots etc. certainly offer good cause.

Rather surprising to me is, according to the ConsumerLab report, most of us seem to be aware of social media issues (depicted below in Figure 1), yet we do not want to give up our habits. In fact, there is no relationship between awareness of various social media issues and time spent on social media.

It turns out that many of us share concerns related to social media, but it does not mean that we are ready to give up our habits. And indeed, I too, do not feel like giving up this important part of my professional and social life. The question is, if we are unlikely to give up our social media behavior, what can we do to improve the situation?

Figure 1. Consumer awareness of different social media issues

Can we stop the spread of fake news?

Printed media like newspapers and journals build relationship with their readers based on reputation. They establish this reputation by carefully checking information before publishing it. On social media, however, there are no editors, which allows all kind of content to spread without control. So maybe having a person or AI review a social media platform's content is not such a bad idea? This was a key takeaway from the ConsumerLab report: as many as two-thirds say that social media services should hire employees to manually check the content on their platforms and 40% expect AI editors to do this in the future.

Social media companies have started waking up to the potential threats on their platforms. But, meanwhile, what can we do to protect ourselves from fake news?

I think that, in this context, we shouldn't disregard the role of consumers themselves. As one of our respondents answered: "You should read and figure it out yourself" and another one added that "People should be taught how to do research correctly and find the truth if they have read something online that has no reliable sources." And they are right. Shouldn't we be more critical towards information we find online? We each have the personal responsibility of being editors ourselves, instead of demanding social media companies to play this role and double check information we consume.

I think that it could be a very good practice to start with. When I come across news that seems suspicious to me, for example, I try to check whether other news agencies have also reported this news; i'll check the data and links they refer to as their sources; and in general, I try to be more critical. Other signs that raise a red flag for me are news pieces without a name of an author, news pieces that appeal to an emotional reaction and come from non-credible news agencies.

So, whose responsibility is it to stop fake news?

Fake news on social media is a complex phenomenon and probably has to be addressed from various angles. There's no denying the role that social media companies have in controlling the spread of fake news on their platforms. But we, social media users, also have a role to play. For example, by learning to verify information that we read on social media platforms. Personal responsibility can be the first step to protecting the fabric of our societies.

What else do today's consumers say about fake news and social media? Find out in the ConsumerLab report #OMG social media is here to stay


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