How Flat UI Helped Fake News Thrive In The Age Of Social Media
During the UI design wars of the early 2010s, quintillions of pixels were lost, the necessary sacrifices for a simple, but effective and compelling idea about the direction of UIs in the age of the ubiquitous web. You see, the web has grown up and the reigning design philosophy, skeuomorphism (or making digital elements look like their meatspace counterparts) had to go because we were now implementing functionality that had no obvious real-world counterparts, or would be done automatically.
Even worse, skeuomorphism introduced lots of clutter and extra pixels to render, and it came as the mobile web and apps pushed into the developing world, where internet connections were unreliable and slow. This meant a much slower load time in new markets for what amounted to little more than decoration. Bottom line? Skeuomorphism was out, and minimalistic flat UI would take its place. Over the years, it’s become the standard for how a web page or web app should look, and is now creeping into sports broadcasting and, to a smaller extent, bleeding into cable news.
Now, to someone who specializes in backend code but is merely okay when it comes to actual design, like myself, flat UI has been a boon. Using crisp, clean lines and bold colors to delineate content, input, and navigation makes the topmost layers of the tech stack much easier to implement while still looking professional. But if we step outside the world of apps and layouts, this easier path to making your product look modern and expensive has backfired in one crucial aspect. It’s an overlooked development currently helping the spread of fake news on social media. How? By exploiting the very same subconscious biases, luxury retailers use to boost sales.
For example, we tend to involuntarily think of heavier things as being better quality and more expensive. Printing your resume on thicker paper with crisp fonts gives you an advantage over handing in something printed on economy office paper with default, older types. More expensive furniture tends to be heavier, broadcasting how sturdy it is and convincing us that it must use far stronger, higher quality materials than cheaper versions of itself. This is also why credit cards geared to the upper middle class and the wealthy are now often made of metal instead of plastic, giving them what the industry calls a “plunk factor” and eliciting appreciative nods from those who handle them.
Likewise, we now tend to think of clean, minimalistic designs as high quality and indicative of luxury because the relevant brands embraced minimalism to focus on delivering a consistent experience. This is why Apple and Tesla stores are open, bright, and try to remain uncluttered, while luxury clothing stores with personal shoppers try to move the actual clothes out of the way and sit customers in comfy chairs and couches. Flat UI is like the minimalistic focus of luxury brands but for the online world, making us browse slower and allowing coders to focus on a more consistent experience across screen resolutions and devices used to access the content they want you to see.
Again, none of these things are a problem. Unless you’re exploiting them to market lucrative propaganda, hoaxes, and scams. Whereas before the web and the flat UI explosion spreading fake news relied on chain e-mails, forum posts, and atrocious homemade websites that quickly soured anyone but the extremely gullible and true believers, it now costs all of $100 to buy a snazzy flat UI news site template, set up a powerful blog server, and start submitting content to social media. The UIs of Facebook and Twitter often obscure and flatten the source of the must-click titles and excerpts, placing them alongside very high quality and reputable outlets in lists curated by blind algorithms, or just by polling how much engagement the link received.
You could see these effects in a catastrophic Stanford study from 2016 which demonstrated that a group of nearly 8,000 students were easily duped by a professional looking account and homogenized social media interfaces, able to discern biases, pinpoint frauds, or express appropriate cautions about the content a paltry fifth to a third of the time. Looking at the examples of tweets and links used in the study, it’s quickly obvious how legitimate sources and fakes end up looking almost identical, and why it can be so difficult to tell the difference. Did the students need to be more critical and better informed? No question. But did social media make their job harder? Absolutely.
Even worse, roughly 60% of Americans just read the headlines and blurbs of news stories, so they miss many of the cues that might indicate that a story is not trustworthy as they’re washed out by social media sites’ content scrapers and preview blocks, and their quick glances seem to just look for a snazzy enough logo to decide if it’s probably legitimate. And since every social media algorithm looks at engagement with a story that’s been browsed from just a headline and short excerpt, blasting out whatever gets the most clicks, views, and shares, it’s inevitable that fake but attractive stories explode. Meanwhile better sourced, more accurate news either barely keeps up or gets buried down the users’ timelines where it’s rarely seen.
This poor, engagement-hungry, source-agnostic curation lets new vectors of information and analysis get the light of day they wouldn’t otherwise have had, which is an overall net positive. But without being graded on how ready those sources are to fix their mistakes or how many factually incorrect, low-quality, or outright fake stories they publish, they’ll end up polluting timelines with conspiracy theories and propaganda, while social media algorithms help users who like them ensconce themselves in a bubble. For example, studies already show how right-wing social media has immersed itself in InfoWars, Fox, Breitbart, and very little else.
So, what’s the answer? Do we step back from flat UI and modern design in social networks and news sites? Not at all. But what we do need to take into account is that some of the pixels sacrificed to make timelines look clean had an important function, and the contents need to be tagged to show whether they’re an established newspaper or a trustworthy source accountable for its content, or a fake news farm designed to drive outrage clicks and constantly caught lying. Of course, this won’t stop those who want to live in their echo chamber, but for those curious whether the headline they saw is legitimate and harboring even a little bit a doubt, additional cues about the track record of those who wrote it could prove to be incredibly important.
Social media and modern technology has leveled the media playing field, but without any curation or acknowledgment that not every news story is just an opinion and not all opinions are equal regardless of the source, it also allowed the loudest, most pandering, and outrage-inducing outlets to develop large followings that aren’t just unable to tell fact from fiction, but don’t want to. If we don’t adjust to this reality and refuse to stand up for what’s right, we risk turning a system intended to be the means to exchange valuable information and knowledge into an open sewer of clickbait and partisan conspiracies built to milk users for views, clicks, and shares. And the real world consequences of this are already disastrous and becoming ever more so by the day.