January 16, 2017

Sociology, Science, and Fake News

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Little gets me more riled up than the proliferation of fake news in an age where we can get quality information with ease. It just gets my goat.

My nearly perfect mother-in-law forwarded an email to me recently. Just looking at it caused trepidation. It was forwarded multiple times as evidenced by the four vertical lines along the left side of the email. The big font text was bright blue and red with a lot of CAPITAL AND BOLDED AND UNDERLINED LETTERS. These are markers for concern. It cites the reputable Mayo Clinic, and a Dr. Virend Somers. It starts with a provocative title “MAYO CLINIC - DRINKING WATER.” Then it follows: “A cardiologist determined that heart attacks can be triggered by dehydration. Good Thing To Know. From The Mayo Clinic. How many folks do you know…” It ends with a plea: “Do forward this message. It may save lives! "Life is a one time gift" (Let's forward and hope this will help save some!!!)”

A quick Google search took me to the Mayo Clinic’s website which, unsurprisingly to me, issued a statement discounting the circulated email, noting that it was “inaccurate and potentially harmful.”

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to it after the 2016 presidential election. Vox demonstrates how the top 20 bogus news reports outperformed real news at the end of the election cycle. The distinction broke down along ideological lines:

17 out of the 20 fake news stories had information favoring Donald Trump. In contrast, a lot of the mainstream stories were pro-Clinton: pieces like “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling” from the Washington Post and “I ran the CIA. Now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton” from the New York Times.

There has been a lot written about fake news—spread via email and social media—after the election. What’s the sociology behind it?

First, there is the architecture of email and social media technology: headlines from anywhere can be distributed quickly. The proliferation of semi-news sites has led to a flattening of a hierarchy that traditional news sits atop, and an obfuscation of where the information came from.

Second, embedded in that architecture of social media is the fact that this information is, well, social: false news is usually being passed along by someone you know, usually someone you trust. (Again, I adore my mother-in-law.) Once the content pierces a social network, if it harmonizes with the interests of the group, it spreads. My mother-in-law says that news about health spreads like wildfire.

Third, there has to be some markers of validity. Like the reference to a doctor from the Mayo Clinic. This is where photography can come in. A WIRED article analyzes a few of the memes being passed around during the election. One of them, for example, says, “Claim Trump is going to destroy America… As they go out and destroy America” but the picture is from a 2012 protest in Greece. The picture, matching the text, lends plausibility—even if it is inaccurately matched.

A fourth factor is the rise of the amateur and the corresponding fall of the authority of the expert. For years media critics have been thinking about the costs and benefits regarding how technology has allowed everyday folks to, in the words of Doug Rushkoff, crash “the gates of professionalism.” Anyone with a cell phone and a twitter account can now produce and distribute a journalistic report. Citizen journalism, further, flattens the hierarchy.

Science has, in some ways, failed itself by not communicating to the public in a clearer fashion. But a knot of misunderstandings are at the root of science’s decreasing authority in the public eye. First, Americans like science in general, but don’t trust scientists or their findings. As with fake news, people tend to embrace science that they agree with and discount science that doesn’t comport with their worldview. (The science for confirmation bias is available here, if you are inclined to agree with it.)

Second, there’s a misunderstanding about how healthy debate is central to scientific research. Useful scientific knowledge does not require total consensus, but even a small amount of dissent seems to have an effect on public opinion. Third, facts seem to matter less than ideology for the U.S. public. A recent study demonstrates how political and religious ideologies are particularly resistant to facts: when people’s belief systems are challenged by data, they resort to untestable and unfalsifiable terms.

The consequences of fake news and the undermined authority of information have been epic, with deep and long reaching effects, from the presidential election to the spread of previously contained preventable diseases, like measles and mumps. (Sociologist Jennifer Reich traces the root causes of why parents reject their vaccine schedules in her new book, Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines.)

What to do? One thing would be to double-check your own information before posting anything. The information is usually available. Check the source (like the Mayo Clinic.) If that proves fruitless, check out Snopes, a website dedicated to investigating false rumors like “mattress coils amplify electromagnetic radiation from your TV, causing cancer” (that one’s false) and “Delta Airlines ejects a passenger for speaking Arabic” (that one’s unproven).

Second, avoid questionable news sources altogether. Communications Professor Melissa Zimdars, created a document of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y and/or Satirical 'News' sources.” (And someone else put together a chart.) She tells the Los Angeles Times, “Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.” (Of note, Dr. Zimdars had to take down the webpage after she, her students, and her colleagues were threatened and harassed for sharing it.)

Third, share “scientific consensus information.” Scientific American notes that when people are exposed to consensus information (e.g., “97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening”), they can change their minds. (Republicans, in fact, more than Democrats.)

Now, did you hear about Facebook’s new subscription fees?


My mom have a Facebook account and I don't because I look up pictures about anything. I know that change can make different to the Republicans just like Trump did and he want to make America Great Again.

great information.

Thanks for sharing this great. Keep sharing more useful and conspicuous stuff like this. Thank you so much

Besides lack of parents involvement, the school problems viewed as serious by at least 10 percent of public school teachers included student apathy, poverty, student absenteeism

Thank you for your kind words.

This was insightful. Thanks Jonathan.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Cyber Crime | Main | When Words Lose Meaning »