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Why we love to like junk news that reaffirms our beliefs

Facebook is exquisitely designed to feed our addiction to hyper-partisan content. In this world, fringe players who are apt to be more strident end up at the top of our news feeds, burying the middle ground. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the ways junk news feeds into our own beliefs about politics, institutions and government.

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  • William Brangham:

    Now to our special series on junk news.

    Miles O'Brien has been reporting extensively on how it's spread, how social media platforms have been utilized and manipulated, and how some folks have used it for business and other political motives.

    Tonight, he looks at many of us, the users who see all of this, and how it's feeding into our own beliefs about politics, institutions and government.

    It's part of weekly series on the Leading Edge of technology.

  • Betty Manlove:

    I go on Facebook because members of my family post pictures, and I can keep track of my family that way.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Betty Manlove used to be a smoker. Not anymore. But she still battles an addiction.

  • Betty Manlove:

    My other addiction is Facebook. I have lost hours on Facebook that I should have been doing other things.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And while pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren lured her to the social networking platform in the first place, it is politics that fuels addiction.

  • Betty Manlove:

    I was raised Democrat . However, I have decided that I will not vote Democrat again.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    We found this dyed-in-the-wool Christian conservative in a surprising way. Her grandson is Cameron Hickey, the producer of this series.

    As part of our investigation into the world of junk news, he wrote some software that searched the social network for misinformation. His grandmother had liked more of these sites than any of his friends.

    Among pages she has followed, those produced by Cyrus Massoumi, the prolific purveyor of hyperpartisan content we featured in our last installment.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    She said she doesn't talk to any of her kids, not my mom, not her other kids, about politics, because it seems like a challenge. But she loves liking political stuff on Facebook.

  • Betty Manlove:

    I think social media has caused me to be more concerned with politics.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Facebook is exquisitely designed to feed Betty Manlove's addiction. The ever-learning algorithm knows her well and consistently provides content designed to keep her at the screen and move her emotions, one way or another.

  • Betty Manlove:

    It seems like they want to stir up questions in your mind. And those kinds of things are meant to try influence you to change your mind. And they don't. They make me a little bit angry.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's one thing Betty Manlove shares in common with another one of Cameron's Facebook friends.

    Gabe Doran is an actor and soccer dad from Brooklyn.

  • Gabe Doran:

    Look alive, boys.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He also admits he might be addicted to Facebook.

  • Gabe Doran:

    I got really involved on Facebook, which is kind of a waste of time, to be honest with you. But it's how I choose to waste some of my time.

    So, it's like, damn. I just wasted like an hour on Facebook really accomplishing nothing. That group is called I Am a Liberal Until My Dying Day.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    You are a member of that group?

  • Gabe Doran:

    I don't know. I guess so. If you like it, you are a member, right?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Gabe Doran is as blue as Betty Manlove is red.

  • Gabe Doran:

    I'm pretty liberal. For some, that's a bad word. I don't — I still don't really understand that, but I'm pretty proud of it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He has also liked several hyperpartisan pages, including Cyrus Massoumi's liberal Truth Examiner. Gabe Doran got really hooked during the 2016 presidential election.

  • Gabe Doran:

    I was in shock. I didn't understand, knowing everything that we knew then, and we know so much more now. And there's still a lot of support. It's just — it's mind-boggling to me.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    He too sees a lot that makes him angry.

  • Gabe Doran:

    I have some right-wing friends who jump on me whenever I post these things, and it starts a long back and forth. They're incredibly misinformed. And there's nothing I can do about that with my facts and with my logic and with my common sense.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But common sense, the facts are not what keeps people coming back to Facebook again and again.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    Do you ever tried to verify the things that you see?

  • Betty Manlove:

    Sometimes, if it bothers me. Usually, I just think it's political and go right on.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Raw emotion, untethered from the facts, is what causes the virtual food-fight.

    Jonathan Albright watches all of this as research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

  • Jonathan Albright:

    I saw friends and people that I knew posting things that were, insensitive and things that maybe I wouldn't normally see them post, kind of outrage type political — almost like outrage porn, is what I call it.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In this world, fringe players have equal footing, and because they are apt to be more strident, they get a lot of engagement, and end up at the top of our news feeds, burying the middle ground.

  • Jonathan Albright:

    I think maybe some of the polarization and the kind of effects of what we're seeing are really just the exposure of groups that traditionally, without such densely interconnected social media, would never come in contact with one another.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And everyone has made decisions about what to trust based on the conventional wisdom of a set of friends, our tribe.

    And we tend to agree with them. Neither Betty nor Gabe say their opinions have been swayed on Facebook, just hardened.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    Do you think that you're going to change any of your beliefs based on the news you read?

  • Betty Manlove:

    Not unless there's tremendous proof that I should change what I believe. And, these days, the actual truth is kind of hard to come by.

  • Gabe Doran:

    I know that no one is going to change my mind about the way I feel. I know I'm not going to change anybody else's mind.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The term of art is filter bubble.

    Web publisher Eli Pariser coined the phrase.

  • Eli Pariser:

    This kind of image of a filter bubble as this kind of personal universe of information that follows us around wherever we go.

    And it filters out things that we might not want to engage with, and shapes our own sort of view of the world. That's a really big shift from a set of editors and producers carefully thinking about what should go on the front page and what shouldn't.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is a welcome shift for Betty Manlove, who has very little trust of traditional media sources.

  • Betty Manlove:

    I believe what I want to believe. I'm too much of an independent thinker to allow emotions to take over. And news is news and opinion is opinion, and so I just go for the true news.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But finding what is true in her news feed is not so easy. She has been convinced Barack Obama was born in Kenya…

  • President Donald Trump:

    Let him produce the birth certificate, which I hear doesn't exist.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    … and Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg is a fraud.

    So, where do these ideas come from? From the filter bubble created on Facebook by liking a post or clicking on a targeted ad that unwittingly makes users followers of a hyperpartisan page.

    In the mix, some misinformation from Russia. Her grandson helped her find that out by going to a site on Facebook for users to see if they have liked any pages linked to Russia's Internet Research Agency.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    So, it shows that, on 6/20/2016, you liked this page, Stop A.I, which is a Russian Facebook page.

    Then, on January 8, 2017, you liked Army of Jesus, which is another Russian page.

  • Betty Manlove:

    Really?

  • Cameron Hickey:

    Yes. Let's keep going down.

    And then, on 6/20/2016, you liked one called Secured Borders.

    So, these three pages that you liked were pages created by Russian intelligence agents to spread disinformation.

  • Betty Manlove:

    Well, that's all new information for me.

  • Cameron Hickey:

    Does it ever worry you that they might manipulating you?

  • Betty Manlove:

    I'm sure that they are trying to. I try not to be manipulated by that, but it's possible that I am.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Gabe Doran says he is more likely to seek humor and entertainment stories on Facebook. He says he goes out of his way to check stories for accuracy before sharing.

    He doesn't feel manipulated by falsehoods, but rather Facebook itself and a business model that rewards polarization and makes users the product.

  • Gabe Doran:

    It does change your perspective. It's — you do feel a little bit duped. But then I guess we're all in some way a little bit addicted, so we keep going back, in the hopes that it will get figured out, that they will figure out the glitches and the stuff that's not working.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In our next installment, we will take you back inside Facebook and show you how they're trying to fix what's not working.

    I'm Miles O'Brien for the "PBS NewsHour," in Menlo Park, California.

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