Pattern Recognition: The year of post-truths
Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President ", the headline on Facebook screamed. Another read: "Wikileaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS ... Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!"
Neither of these was true. They are part of a spate of misinformation that, many argue, may have influenced the US presidential elections.
"In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post [and] NBC News," a BuzzFeed analysis found.
It’s all the more problematic because 44% of the US population get their news via Facebook, according to a May report by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook, saying it was "a pretty crazy idea" that fake news on the social network may have influenced Trump’s rise to the presidency.
But a Facebook employee told BuzzFeed: "What’s crazy is for him [Zuckerberg] to come out and dismiss it like that when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season."
If you believe — after Brexit and president-elect Trump — that it seems reality has been distorted, there’s now a word to support you: "post-truth".
It’s the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016, 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’s been the year of unbelievable dents to the common-sense fabric of the world. First the isolationist, anti-immigrant disaster of Brexit. Then the inexplicable rise of Trump, the businessman and property tycoon who pays no taxes and was pushed over the finish line by a groundswell of the anti-immigrant, rural disenfranchised.
These anti-establishment voters were willing to believe any of the crazy nonsense that emerged on fake news sites — as much to influence the election as to reap advertising spend (which Google says it won’t allow fake news sites to carry).
There’s another phrase for it, which could sum up the year: filter bubble. Because of the way Facebook shows you things that it judges you "like", it reduces people’s exposure to viewpoints they don’t agree with.
These algorithms suddenly appear more ominous to human interaction and tolerance than anything else.
This fake news conundrum was summed up by this satirical headline: "Mark Zuckerberg — Dead At 32 — Denies Facebook Has Problem With Fake News."
It’s a post-rationality world now.
• Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff magazine.