We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour.
You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again.
Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives.
On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.
The Epistemology of Fake News
To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.
Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is.
Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact.
The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be).
This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information.
Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”
We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast.
Recycling Bad News
The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news.
This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example.
But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)
Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.
Whichever President’s Nazi U.N. Vote
To offer one example, a CBS News article titled “U.S. Votes against Anti-Nazi Resolution at U.N.” has circulated many times in recent months on Facebook, invariably accompanied by commentary about how it’s (another) example of Trump refusing to condemn Nazis and white supremacists.
The news story is accurate—it’s just several years old and in fact occurred under Barack Obama.
This opens liberals up to accusations of hypocrisy by conservatives: If voting against anti-Nazi resolutions is patently wrong, racist, and un-American, then where was the outrage when Obama did it? (This is of course a bit of a false equivalence fallacy, since Obama and Trump do not have similar histories regarding race relations—and to be fair, there are many perfectly valid reasons a country would refuse to vote for a measure that is otherwise worthy but may have unwanted attachments or obligations.)
The point here is not to set up any false equivalence between the administration on this issue—nor, certainly, to defend Trump—but instead to illustrate how the psychological tendency toward confirmation bias can affect us. A “no” vote on an otherwise not-particularly-notable U.N. resolution takes on special social media newsworthy significance in a context and under an administration that has come under fire for similar accusations of racial insensitivity or even outright racism. In one context, it’s a non-event; in another, it’s a (in this case, false) data point in a constellation of incidents suggesting Trump’s support of white supremacy.
News reports of racist attacks were often attributed to Trump’s influence, for example when a ninety-two-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, was attacked with a brick in Los Angeles and told to “go back to his own country.” His jaw was shattered and he suffered multiple broken ribs. I saw the story circulate in 2019 as recent news, with commentary that this was obviously a result of Trump’s latest racist comments—except that the attack had occurred over a year earlier, and the attacker was an African-American woman, Laquisha Jones.
While it’s possible the attack was influenced by Trump, it’s unlikely and we should avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. Some ugly racial incidents clearly are, some may be, and some are not; lumping them together serves no purpose. One can certainly argue that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged racial divisiveness in America, but using that specific news article or incident as an example is simply false and misleading.
Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” There are plenty of other factually accurate news stories that could have made the same point.
The same applies to all recycled stories; the process, not the content, is the problem, and you can be sure that were a Democrat in the White House, the use of old, fake news would be just as robust. Facebook is aware of the problem and has recently introduced a small red “Breaking News” icon that appears along with (actually) new news stories, to help users distinguish new from old.
But the ultimate responsibility lies with each social media user, who is after all the curator of their own newsfeeds. People need to take responsibility for what they share and (explicitly or tacitly) promote on social media. Every hoax or misleading meme can be stopped from going further by diligent—or even half-assed—efforts to not mislead others. It could be as simple as adding a caveat to the post such as “From 2015, and still relevant.”
But this of course requires the person to spend a few seconds verifying the date—which is easy enough; it can be done simply by clicking on the link and noting the date, or often by merely hovering the cursor over an active URL, which often reveals the date (see below).
Very few people generate new content on social media (and a significant portion of those who do are part of organized misinformation campaigns); most simply and blindly pass along whatever information they receive. In today’s misinformation-marinated world, skeptics and critical thinkers must be vigilant if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem. Otherwise socially and media literate people routinely admonish others to check their facts and demand evidence while actively share misinformation themselves. People can complain about misinformation and disinformation from Russia and biased news media all they like, but change begins at home.
This article first appeared at my CFI blog in 2019 and remains sadly relevant; you can find it HERE.