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The Role of Affect in Engaging with 'Fake News'

The next presenters at ANZCA 2017 are David Nolan and Jennifer Beckett, who begin by highlighting the great moral panic about 'filter bubbles', supposedly caused by the fragmentation of media audiences. This perspective is not new, however: the dissolution of 'the' public sphere into public sphericules has been discussed since the 1990s, and this has also been seen as giving rise to new interest groups representing disadvantaged communities – so this diversification is not necessarily a negative trend.

Yet the increasing market orientation of the news industry has also meant an increasingly narrow focus of individual news outlets on particular socio-demographic groups; this is also mirrored in the increasingly marginal calculations of political campaigns in which groups they seek to address in order to attract a majority of voters.

'Fake news' – stories that are intentionally false in order to mislead readers, or that are satirical in nature but could be misunderstood as true – now tap into this diversified communicative environment; they seek to address specific groups and measure their success through 'big data' metrics on social media uptake.

Social media platforms have tended not to curtail such processes; they have traditionally seen their role as and built their business models around connecting users wth the content they might see as interesting and informative, independent of its veracity. The distribution of 'fake news' also generates income for these platforms, after all, as well as for the originators of these stories.

Affect plays a particularly crucial role in this context: affective pieces tend to generate the most significant social media impact. This is also related to phenomena such as cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias: we tend to avoid information that challenges our views, and instead seek out the stories that confirm our beliefs; the process becomes self-reinforcing as our beliefs strengthen the more of such stories we encounter.

Social media further gamify this experience through their feedback mechanisms for the likes, shares, and comments on our posts that we receive from others; the sense of shared affective engagement in a story – whether approval or outrage – that we receive from sharing a story can be positively addictive.