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  • Writer's pictureAlysha Autumn

Social Identity and Fake News

The way we interact with news is not determined by our specific individual identities but through our participation in discourse through our associations and interactions with various group and ideological identities; the social groups we align ourselves with and the beliefs we hold. There is not one single news source that holds ideas that are representative of an entire society as a whole; all news has some sort of bias that we can accept or oppose, through this we can be sorted algorithmically and fed information. Performances of ideology from news organizations cannot be separated from their reporting of the news as it is crucial in the collection and maintenance of their audiences (Jones 179). Fake news is not simply news that we disagree with, it is news created to deceive people based on their preexisting allegiance to social identities and associations. From Hall et al, “‘News’ is the end-product of a complex process which begins with a systemic sorting and selecting of events and topics according to socially constructed categories” (Hall et al 53).

There is an increase in misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is media in which is unintentionally false, usually through unresearched claims, made both by news outlets and individuals. While unintentional, it can cause harm by inciting panic, the widespread falsehoods, and distrust in the media. Left-leaning people often go to mainstream media and share those stories, while right-leaning people often look toward fringe media and social sharing apps to garner their information such as on Parler or Gab. “Conservative media attempts to affect an “authenticity” which is tied to non-elite, non-urban identity. Thus, according to previous research, successful conservative news stories often tap into “deep stories'' that are common in other forms of conservative storytelling” that manifests in stories that further marginalize people of colour, people belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community, and immigrants for example (Marwick 497). Disinformation, on the other hand, is intentionally false information disseminated to purposely further debate in echo chambers to sway a public’s opinion or to simply garner more attention, clicks, and thus wealth, featuring clickbait titles and outrageous stories. The Facebook news feed is designed to conceal the source of news information, just featuring the title to target certain viewers and encourage sharing. Neither the right nor the left are immune to the guise of fake news, though, the far-right is more susceptible to it.

In her essay, Why Do People Share Fake News? Marwick develops a socio-technical model to understand the sharing and spread of fake news, this model goes as follows: first, it examines the ways that audiences make sense of the media content and why they share it, and second, the ways that technologies mediate those messages and help to further amplify fake news (Marwick 487). This model examines both the media, the medium, and the message it conveys through both streams, and thus how it is interacted with by the various sectors and intersecting identities of the public. She states, “many “fake news” or hyper-partisan stories reinforce narratives about race, class, and gender that help build and reinforce collective identity, especially on the right. Sharing fake news must be understood within this context of self-presentation and reinforcement of group identity.” (Marwick 477).

The internet allows for constant, nearly restrictionless public participation in the news, especially within the rise of politicized social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, or Back The Blue and Qanon. This leads people to be more empowered to publicly align themselves with or against news stories to solidify their identity within a group. People develop meaning from the news and social topics based around how they position themselves socially, “media messaging is often structured in particular ways to further a variety of agendas—whether it be increasing consumption of goods, increasing time on a website, or furthering a political viewpoint; and third, that the material settings of media consumption (for instance, newspapers, cable television, or social media) have particular technical affordances that affect both meaning-making and messaging.” (Marwick 487) As noted in Vaidhyanathan’s work, users only spend so much time on their social feeds, so groups and news organizations must work hard to capture attention, thus everything we do online is monitored to maximize clicks, economic gain, and attention (Vaidhyanathan 80). Our feeds work as our own ideological echo chambers, we are most likely to see news and other content that we agree or identify with because of content-filtering algorithms, this keeps users content with their feeds and causes them to engage further with them. Our feeds are created with millions of data points that are collected algorithmically to make each user predictable and exploitable (Zuboff). This reinforces our ideologies through constant recirculation and maintains the security we feel as users by validating our views. Often on either side of the political spectrum, we seek out information that confirms our beliefs going so far to succumb to confirmation bias, and thus fake news. According to our social identities, people will determine the information’s reliability in a way that is motivated by their own ideological positioning. People do not just automatically believe and share fake news, fake news is polysemic, and people create meaning from it in relation to their own identities to make sense of it and interpret it personally. Often, to convey these identities to the public, people do not care whether or not a news story is false, what matters more is to align themselves with others in their group. Many falsehoods are reinforced by powerful people like celebrities or the former President of the United States, their false statements often become clickbait headlines for fake news stories. For example, someone in favour of Trump may post or share false and negative stories about Hillary Clinton, citing negative topics that Trump has spewed about her, knowing that they are false in order to convey their distaste for Hillary and allegiance with Trump and share this ideology with like-minded people. “The likelihood that those in powerful or high-status positions in society who offer opinions about controversial topics will have their definitions accepted, because such spokesmen are understood to have access to more accurate or more specialized information on a particular topic than the majority of the population.” (Hall et al 58).

The ways in which we consume, interact, and share fake news is intrinsically tied to our social identities and those in which we want to project. We are often plagued with confirmation bias and our social feeds in which we receive the news are echo chambers that reflect our ideologies back to us in a way that makes us susceptible to fake news. Our identities, like race, gender, and religion, and moral philosophies cause us to believe in stories that confirm our current belief system that not only creates solidarity with people holding the same views but also encourages hostility toward opposing views; creating an us-versus-them mentality. “When someone chooses to share a fake news story on Facebook, Twitter, via text message, or on Whatsapp; when they post a conservative meme to their wall; or when they “like” a YouTube video about a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, they may well be doing it to signal their identity and affiliate themselves with like-minded others”(Marwick 505). Media outlets, politicians, and celebrities weaponize our identities and affiliations by pulling from larger belief systems (such as religion) and social friction. Fake news does not just interact with personal and online social spheres, it influences political alignment, governmental policy, hate crimes, group formation, election results, and so much more. Fake news is not victimless, it affects us all.

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