Iran situation reveals misinformation from social media users, new users

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Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Quds Force, was probably not a household name until recently for most Americans, save for a few foreign policy experts and those well-acquainted with Middle Eastern affairs. But after his death from a U.S. drone strike Jan. 3 provoked tensions with Iran, Soleimani and the nation’s military have remained one of the most searched terms on the internet.

In the days following the strike, “Soleimani,” “Iran” and “WW3” were the top trending topics on Twitter and Google with tens of millions of searches. In addition to mainstream media, newspaper articles  and talk shows,  news of the incident saturated the internet through online memes and social media.

With so much information spreading, most were not even aware that both fake and factual reporting were intermixed within the same feeds. Fake news found its way into the stream of information that people rely on during times of crisis.

Officials from the Selective Service System released statements squashing rumors of a military draft and news organizations had to issue apologies for reporting false information during the height of the crisis.

Miles Ward, sophomore business administration major, said he believes it is an issue, but not necessarily intentional.

“A lot of the problem is people’s tendency to exaggerate and exclusively follow trends on social media,” Ward said. “That was only amplified with the ordeal with Iran.”

As social media filters the information and news to users’ feeds, the line between factual reporting and entertainment can become blurred. That is only projected to worsen as new users continue to sign up across platforms.

Even media outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post warn that social networks risk shredding all credibility unless they put a stop to the growing problem.

Dr. Chris McHorney, professor of political science and department chair, said that while misinformation will always be a problem on social media platforms, “Ultimately, we (the people) are responsible for identifying the misinformation.”

With Iran, McHorney noted the risk of miscommunication specifically because the volume of misinformation was high. In the heat of the conflict, accurate reporting between governments was critical to ensuring proper de-escalation and the eventual easing of tensions.

Michael Metzler, freshman film major, said when he reads the news it largely comes from social media. He said he is aware of the possibility of fake news on those platforms, but news updates often are first to appear on social media before being published by news organizations.

“(I heard it from) Facebook,” Metzler said, “and it was before I heard it from a traditional source.”

That highlights a growing trend for companies to integrate news features into their platforms, as more mainstream sources have struggled to make the transition. Instantaneous news streams provide access that newspapers and channels cannot, and often do not require paid subscriptions.

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