When Donald Trump (in)famously stepped onto the elevator at Trump Tower as a recently declared presidential candidate in June of 2015, the world changed in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined. After his shocking upset of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, the world watched as America inaugurated a new kind of president. Whether this was a revolutionary victory or catastrophic disaster for the nation depends on who you ask, but all we can agree that Washington is a fundamentally different place now that Trump sits in the Oval Office.
Recently after his inauguration, Trump’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, justified then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s insistence that the crowds at the inauguration were the largest ever (they weren’t) by claiming Spicer’s comments to be “alternative facts.” Enter the era of fake news, Trump and his administration’s toddler-like criticism of reputable news outlets that cover him in ways that he doesn’t like.
But this trend didn’t begin after Trump was elected; it has been brewing ever so slowly over the years since the 2012 election. The power of social media, namely Facebook, on politics and elections was just beginning to be fully realized. Americans are obsessed with Facebook, and the general trend among the average user is that he or she would much rather be reading articles from sources that ally more closely with their side of the political spectrum than ones that aren’t, or even ones that are right down the middle. Hyper-partisan news outlets (the actual sources of fake news, whether Trump wants to admit it or not), such as Breitbart, seized on this opportunity as Obama’s time in office dwindled. With presidential candidates as unpopular as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump being nominated, the alt-left and alt-right media began doing their utmost to ensure that their candidates would emerge victorious.
Soon enough, false information began spreading like wildfire in people’s news feeds. Consecutive shares of non-verifiable videos and articles made their way onto the screens of millions. Sometimes, these conspiracies even had violent results, such as the “Pizzagate” affair that resulted in a man bringing an assault rifle into a Washington DC area pizza parlor to investigate whether or not Hillary Clinton and her aids were responsible for running a child-sex ring in the basement. Luckily, no one was injured.
Soon after Trump had won the election, it was clear that the Russian government had intervened in some way, shape, or form. Although we still do not yet have all the answers as to what happened, to what extent, and how much of an impact it had, controversy began surrounding the new president. It was recently discovered that Russia had purchased thousands of pro-Trump ads on Facebook and Twitter that likely reached millions of voters, spreading false information that was likely to influence the vote in some way.
This level of foreign interference in our election is unprecedented, and it occurred in a way that twenty years ago wouldn’t have even been possible. The truth is that we were not ready for this sort of assault on our democratic system, and whether you are a Trump supporter or not, the American people as a group can agree that it is not the place of foreign adversaries to try and influence our elections. It is now the responsibility of social media outlets to ensure that this sort of interference never happens again.
Their lack of action has been seen in other instances as well. In both the onslaught of hurricanes during the past month as well as the horrible tragedy that occurred in Las Vegas on October 1st, Facebook, and even Google, had top hits during these crises that were presenting false information to the public. During Hurricane Harvey, a trending story from a fake news outlet on Facebook claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters were preventing relief efforts from reaching those affected in Texas. Fake news stories claiming that the Las Vegas shooter was a member of ISIS were also trending.
This spread of misinformation is not only unacceptable, it’s dangerous. During real emergencies such as natural disasters and mass shootings, accurate information may mean the difference between life and death, and it is up to the tech community to better regulate their websites to ensure that false information does not reach the public.
The sheer power that the internet has over our daily lives is immense and overwhelming, but our nation has not yet taken the necessary precautions to ensure that their powers are not used to attack our democracy and even our safety and well-being. If our government will not take action, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all of Silicon Valley need to step up and make sure that they are not enabling foreign adversaries and fake news outlets to take advantage of us, before they fail us again.