At 23, Cameron Harris wanted to set himself apart. He was looking to start a consulting business during the crazy 2016 political season, but he had bills to pay. As a recent graduate from a college where tuition is over $45,000 per year, Harris decided he’d write a fake news story and see how much attention—and Google/Facebook ad revenue—it would attract. Harris fabricated a tale about ballot boxes full of fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton found in an Ohio warehouse. He bolstered his story by creating numerous, official-sounding sites across several social media platforms and enthusiastically shared his fabricated news as if everyone was talking about it. It worked. Astonishingly, his story would be shared 6 million times and he’d make $22,000 dollars in a few months from the ads placed on his suddenly popular website. Some say the story also may have swayed a teetering presidential election.
Fake news stories are designed to get people to click on links. Social media content developers potentially receive revenue every time you and I click on a link or share a story or video. According to a Washington Post article, it’s not uncommon for some teenagers to earn $5,000 per month or more using “fake news sites as a way to make easy money from American gullibility.” Although some social media venues have announced they will begin cracking down on fake news sites and stories, these hosting companies also make big money from these clicks. It’s best to assume fake news is here to stay.
While many are creating fake news as a means to earn easy money, we can’t discount that others may be bent on fundamentally changing the very fabric of societies. If we have not yet done so, it’s time to come to grips with the power and potential of social media to influence our society and our world. “Social networks are helping to fundamentally rewire human society,” according to Farhad Manjoo with the New York Times. “They have subsumed and gutted mainstream media. They have undone traditional political advantages like fund-raising and access to advertising. And they are destabilizing and replacing old-line institutions and established ways of doing things.” Of course, change is not necessarily bad. Social media can be harnessed for good or bad, truth or deception.
With all that in mind, it’s vital for us to resolve to be discerning and informed citizens, understanding that there are those who make a game—and small fortunes—out of misleading us. This is not surprising in a society where, according to the Washington Times, average college students (and if we are honest, many among us) were able to identify the Kardashians but not Ronald Reagan or former Vice President Joe Biden. How much more do we all need to be familiar with and understand our own U.S. Constitution and its priceless concepts? Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
We all—I’m talking to myself, too—need to resolve to: dig deeper; read credible sources, important articles and good books; and replace some of the time spent on sillier pursuits with meaningful ones. In much the same way as we all work toward a balanced diet (with fewer empty calories and more foods that nourish and strengthen us), we need to resolve to spend more time each day on activities that will make us deeper and more thoughtful people and thus more knowledgeable and valuable citizens of our communities and this great country.
One final note: As Christians, we have always been called to be counter-cultural and discerning. This should be nothing new for us. In Acts 17, the Bereans had the honor of being taught by the Apostle Paul himself. And yet, they took everything Paul said and went back to the Scriptures every day to make sure what he said was true! In the same way, let us be intentional about learning more and growing deeper so that we may be knowledgeable resources in our families, communities and nation.
Traci DeVette Griggs is Director of Communications for the North Carolina Family Policy Council and is Editor of Family North Carolina.