Leadership Studies Ed.D. Dissertations


Understanding the Allure and Danger of Fake News in Social Media Environments

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)


Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Judith May (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Dawn Anderson (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Angel González (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Paul Johnson (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Kristina LaVenia (Committee Member)


In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote,“The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers... [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of news writers who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper” (Sec.51). Jefferson’s views are as salient today as they were in 1785. Some 232 years later, a “mass of people” struggle to distinguish between news that is real and news that is false. The largest context for this struggle to date was the 2016 United States presidential election (Pew Center, 2016c). For some, the “fake news” found on social media has become a harbinger for the emergence of a despotic government (Pew Center). The purpose of this qualitative study was to understand the phenomenon of fake news through the lived experience of graduate students in the United States. The prospective student participants were pursuing advanced degrees in higher education. This research study utilized the uses and gratifications theory (UGT) approach to analyze how and why people used social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In light of the influence of fake news on the 2016 presidential election, this study also aimed to investigate the reasons why people believed that fake news were appealing. The thematic analysis revealed people were gratified by the use of social media for connecting with friends and family, gathering and sharing information, and as a vehicle of expression. Participants found a significant amount of fake news stories on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They tried to identify and differentiate between fake news and real news using the fact-checking websites and major news sources. However, the two significant themes that emerged during the interviews illustrated that the participants felt that fake news on social media were ideologically polarizing the society and affecting their personal relationships. Upgrade in public policies related to social media were recommended in this study.