Jennifer Grygiel speaks about the #fakenewstrainwreck on social media

By Rylee Carrillo-Waggoner ’19

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On Tuesday, April 18, Assistant Professor of Communications Jennifer Grygiel from the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Communication, delivered a speech in Hamilton’s Kirner-Johnson auditorium, which she titled “#fakenewstrainwreck.”

Grygiel began her talk by discussing social media in a broader sense, stating, “Social media is not new.” She then discussed social media platforms that have existed IRL (in real life) before the internet and how they still function today. Grygiel’s first example was Latrinalia, or the study of bathroom scrawlings. On bathroom stalls, one can find hot lists, poems and hashtags. The Elephant Cafe in Edinburgh, Scotland, famous for hosting J.K. Rowling as she wrote the majority of the Harry Potter series, also serves as a fandom site, where people mark their appreciation for the series on bathroom stalls.  Grygiel asks “how different is bathroom scrawling from Yik Yak?” Grygiel then introduced hobo signs, which were used as a form of communication during the Great Depression. A building or tree would be marked with a little train if it was a good place to jump on a train, a cat if a nice lady lived in the house and a hashtag-looking symbol if police watched the area very closely. Today, signs like this still exist for modern nomads. Similar sketch drawings can indicate a well-stocked bathroom, an overpriced bar or an ATM with heavy fees. “Don’t these symbols kind of function like emojis?” Grygiel pondered. 

Grygiel then shifted, asking, “What is fake news?” The audience participated, coming up with answers of their own, such as “mistaken news deliberately delivered,” “creating a different universe or culture through misinformation” and “fake news feeds on the fear part of our brain.” Grygiel noted that younger generations especially struggle with fake news because they did not grow up with the limited, centuries-old news sources that older generations use, and thus might find it harder to separate the fake from the real news. While Webster Dictionary simply defines fake news as “news that is fake,” they also dedicate a blog to the subject wherein they more clearly describe it as “bending the truth for political gain… certainly nothing new - it’s propaganda, and the record of its uses stretch back to ancient times.” Harvard Law School recently had a panel discussion about the term and described it, according to Grygiel’s notes, as “disinformation… folk news… cultural logics - mirrors for deeper thinking in society… information quality is highly subjective and contextual… news for young people is not the same for old people, more social for young viewers.”

Grygiel then asked the audience when we started using the term. She pulled up her own research on it, which found a substantial peak in the use of the term on January 12, and while no day since has even been comparable, the term has been in circulation since. So what happened on January 12? Donald Trump tweeted, “@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!” 

While some things have not changed, what has? “What is different about social media?” Grygiel asks her audience, later stating, “It’s being produced by the people who used to be the audience.” She applies two theories to explain this: agenda setting and gatekeeping. Agenda setting theory states that “media has the ability to determine which issues are important to the public.” So even by negatively mentioning someone, one makes that person more important, whether that be as a threat or a savior. Within journalism, gatekeepers “determine what information is passed on. These are people of influence.” Grygiel described this as one of the big changes in journalism: these gatekeepers have been taken out of the equation. There are fewer people trained to filter news before it reaches the public. The public, as mentioned before, can then create its own, potentially uneducated news that can be circulated around with reliable news, and it becomes challenging to discern which is which. 

This also relates to the removal of hate speech. If a post is flagged and deemed hate speech, platforms such as Facebook are required to take down that post within 24 hours. However, Facebook only removes 30 to 40 percent of the posts they are required to remove. The world saw the result of this with the Cleveland murder that was livestreamed. The platform has also resulted in a number of live suicides, including suicides by minors. And yet, as mentioned within the article “The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley Reengineered Journalism,” which Grygiel cited during her presentation, there is a “larger issue that the structure and the economics of social platforms incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.” There is no monetary incentive for Facebook to become stricter on filtering. Grygiel explained that the company needs to hire “human content moderators,” as machines are not intelligent enough to filter content such as live videos. Yet rather than hire more people, Facebook creates ways for users to report issues, forcing users to feel the responsibility of filtering news without being paid for the work. In doing so, the roles of journalists are undermined and eliminated. 

In Europe, Facebook has been receiving enough pressure that the company hired a large number of “human content moderators” in Germany to aid this process. This push, hypothesized Grygiel, is occurring because of the number of upcoming elections in Europe and the effect the world is seeing media had on the U.S. election. Yet no such pressure is coming from the U.S. Instead, Grygiel concludes “we don’t have any safe institutions anymore… battling fake news is our collective responsibility.” Grygiel suggests that we need to show intolerance for fake news because we know the macro and micro harms that media can cause.

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