“President Obama bans the Pledge of Allegiance in schools”
“Right-wing shooter shouts ‘Make America great again!’ before spraying Capitol Hill with bullets and injuring a police officer”
What do these online news stories have in common? They’re fake as three dollar bills. And they’re the scourge of the internet, earning rebukes and outright warnings from everyone from President Obama to Pope Francis, who recently called spreading fake news on purpose a “sin.”
What is fake news?
The rapid proliferation of fake news was the inevitable outgrowth of the vast and viral internet. Driven by a hunger for ad dollars or with a particular axe to grind, fake news creators flourished mostly unchecked in all corners of the internet, making money from unsuspecting readers who are exposed to their revenue generated ads after stumbling onto their attention-grabbing, click-inducing headlines.
Fake news runs the gamut from outright lies, to stories that are partially true but deliberately include some misinformation. Some “fake news” from parody sites like the Onion is all in good fun and, somewhere on the site, there is almost always a disclosure that this is humor, not news. Of course, there is always the possibility of a mistake in a legitimate article, whether caused by sloppy reporting or just a mistake or oversight from an otherwise responsible journalist. In most cases, those mistakes will be corrected or disclosed once the news organization becomes aware of the error. What all fake news has in common is that it was written deliberately to deceive.
It’s not new and not just political
Fake news has been around for a long time and it’s not just based on politics. ConnectSafely has been addressing this issue for years, mostly around so-called “urban myths” such as the widely circulated story — going back decades — that the Post Office was planning to charge Americans a five cent tax on every email. More recently millions of people were exposed to a rumor that “Facebook has just released the entry price: $5.99 to keep the subscription of your status to be set to private.” No such policy was ever adopted or even proposed, yet the story was widely shared on Facebook with some people going so far as to paste in a bogus legal disclaimer that — they falsely believed — would legally prevent Facebook from imposing such a fee.
Why fake news is bad
Fake news is an issue that affects all of us, especially considering its ability to swing public opinion and even spark violence, as occurred in Washington, DC where a man discharged a rifle in a pizza restaurant after reading a completely fabricated story that the restaurant was the center of a Hillary Clinton-affiliated child pornography ring. Luckily, no one was hurt, but it could have been tragic.
Fake news can cause people to make bad decisions, such as voting for or against a candidate or an issue based on false information. It can also reinforce myopic views of the world. Some people live in bubbles, sounding themselves with people and media that reinforces their preconceived notions without exposing them to alternate viewpoints. Even without fake news, that can lead to a biased and limited view of the world and our options, but when you add fake news to the equation, it’s much worse, because false information is reinforcing these preconceived notions.
Finally being addressed
The good news is that fake news is finally being discussed and addressed. Turns out it’s none too soon – a 2016 study by Stanford University researchers summed up young people’s ability to parse real news from fake news with one word: “bleak.” That’s especially serious, given that a 2015 study by the Media Insight Project found that by age 18, 88 percent of millennials will get their news from Facebook, Instagram and other social media. (For all adults, that number is currently 44 percent, according to a 2016 Pew Research study.)
Facebook has recently initiated a program to enable users to report fake news, which is then analyzed by fact-checking organizations. The social media giant won’t take a story down or even prevent users from spreading it, but they will put up a warning telling you that the story has been disputed by independent fact checkers.
What you can do
Facebook’s new policy is a good first step, but all of us have a role to play, because fake news affects everyone.
- At a minimum, you should avoid spreading fake news, which is almost as bad as creating it. No one wants to be known as a “liar,” but if you spread fake news without making at least a minimal effort to validate it, that’s pretty much what you’re doing, even if you didn’t mean to lie.
- You can also report it using Facebook’s tool if that’s where you find it or by commenting that the story is fake so that other people who see it will also see your correction. Make sure you include a link to any fact checking source so that people can see why you believe it’s fake.
- You can educate your friends and family — and especially children — about the presence and danger of fake news. Talk about it at the dinner table, share these tips and ask others if they know of examples of fake news or “urban myths.”
- Step in when you see a friend sharing a fake story on social media. Include a link to a post on Snopes or other evidence that refutes the story so people will be discouraged from commenting on (which likely increases a post’s visibility) or, worse, sharing the fake story.
How to spot fake news
- A little bit of critical thinking can go a long way. If you see anything that looks like it might not be true, spend a couple of minutes doing some research before passing it on. It’s easy and you’ll feel better knowing that you’re helping to debunk a myth.
- Search for the facts. If you see a story that looks fishy, you can often find out if it’s true via a search engine. On a web browser, all you have to do is highlight some of the text and right click. That will bring up a search engine which may (or may not) point you to a web page that either validates or disputes the article in question. But be sure to consider the credibility of the page you’re taken to. Make sure it’s a legitimate fact checking organization.
- Build your media literacy muscle. Fake news often plays into particular fears or beliefs, like those stories about President Obama or the right-wing shooter. If a story seems especially one-sided or particularly critical of a person or idea, it could very well be fake.
- Read beyond the headline. Does the story seem balanced, with support for both sides of an issue or story? Is there a byline? If so, search the writer’s name and see what else he or she has written. If you can’t find any other stories by the author, that’s a red flag.
- Look closely at the quotes. Fake news creators often don’t bother to make up quotes. If a source is identified, do a search of the source’s name or their organization or company.
- Watch for odd URLs. Fake news sites often have unusual URLs, but not always. The story about President Obama banning the pledge in schools appeared on ABCnews.com.co, which shouldn’t be confused with the legitimate ABCnews.com. Fake news sites can also have legitimate-sounding names and URLs, for example the fake news site Now8News ran false stories about a woman starving her kids so she could eat their food and McDonald’s closing 17,000 stores because of a raise in the minimum wage.
- Be skeptical of photos, not just text. Photos can be stolen and placed in fake news stories to give them the feel of real ones. They can also be “photoshopped” to put people in situations or places where they have never actually been. If a photo seems suspicious, do a reverse image search.
- Check out the site’s About section. Satirical sites will make their mission clear.
- When in doubt, search Snopes.com or FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com or any of the sites that are part of the Poynter Fact Checking Network.
Facebook to warn users about ‘fake news’ (ConnectSafely)
How to avoid getting conned by fake news sites (CNET)
Here’s a Chrome Extension That Will Flag Fake-News Sites for You (NYMag)
Presidential campaign sparks concern (Larry Magid, Mercury News)