Fake News: Why it Matters and What We Can Do About it

The 2016 presidential election did a lot more than make most of us uneasy and want to crawl into a dark hole and hide until it was over. It brought to light, in full force, the issue of “fake news” and its ability to spread like a contagious foot fungus. We saw it spread across social media and the entire Internet.

Regardless of the spot on the political spectrum in which you find yourself, fake news is something we’ve all read about in the past couple of months, and it needs to be addressed in a real and practical way. It’s time to stop and ask ourselves a few questions, and attempt to get some answers.

What is “fake news”?

Many individuals now think of fake news as a form of political propaganda, especially since its existence received a lot of attention during and after the 2016 election. I mean, when is the whole truth and nothing but the truth disclosed during a political campaign anyway? The tradition of highlighting not-so-nice things about your opponent in a blatantly biased TV commercial ad during election season should be expected. Fabricating news entirely shouldn’t be though.

Lately, we have seen fake news go beyond traditional political propaganda or tabloid ads claiming a celebrity was abducted by aliens. One well-known example was dubbed “Pizzagate”, when a man fired a rifle in a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant after reading a story online that the restaurant was involved in a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton.

In his Buzzfeed article “Top Fake News of 2016,” Craig Silverman highlights research he conducted using BuzzSumo. Silverman discusses the top-performing fake content on Facebook in 2016, with a link to a Google spreadsheet with links to the 50 top-performing articles.

Here are some fake stories that were in the top 20 on the list:

  • “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide” (This one received over 2 million Facebook engagements!)
  • “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement”
  • “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America”
  • “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”
  • “President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse to Leave Office If Trump Is Elected”

The best way to tell if a story is “fake news” is to verify its source and its credibility. Here is a starter  list of fake news websites to be wary of on Facebook if you’re interested in seeing what unreliable sources look like. And here is another list.

Is fake news a real problem? If so, for whom?

Fake news was obviously a problem for the individuals inside the pizza restaurant in D.C. where a man started shooting his rifle. But it’s also a prevalent problem among Americans in general.

According to a recent Pew Research study:

 “About two-in-three U.S. adults (64%) say fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events. This sense is shared widely across incomes, education levels, partisan affiliations and most other demographic characteristics.”

So, yes, fake news is a real problem for most Americans. According to the same Pew study, a quarter of Americans also admitted to spreading fake news in 2016, and most of them were well aware that the items they were sharing were fake.

What’s even more disturbing than a large chunk of Americans knowingly engaging with and spreading fake news? The fact that engagement for fake news on Facebook surpassed that of the content from major news outlets leading up to and during the 2016 election. Pulitzer winner, Politifact, even designated their “2016 Lie of the Year” to “fake news” itself. Because there were so many instances of fake news stories that were created, by so many individuals, they were unable to pinpoint just one.

Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its word of 2016. It’s defined as the condition when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Fake news is a sign that we are living in a post-truth society.

 

Important Question:

When we can’t agree on straightforward facts — or even that there are such things as facts — how are we supposed to talk to each other?

 

Fake news is also a major problem for students across the United States. This Stanford History Education Group study reveals that across the United States, many students can’t tell the difference between a reported news article, a persuasive opinion piece, and a corporate ad. This is a major problem. Future generations should be able to make these distinctions, especially when they are old enough to vote.

Who or what is responsible for fake news?

Because fake news is primarily spread across social media and search engines, Facebook and Google were accused of aiding the contagion of fake content across the web during the 2016 election. Many experts claimed that there was more each company could have done with their algorithms to prevent fake news stories from spreading. Each company has since put the wheels in motion to stop fake news from spreading. You can read more about that here.

Some claim that most individuals who create fake news do it for the revenue that ads on Facebook and Google generate. “I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense,” Paul Horner, a prolific, Facebook-focused fake-news writer claimed in this Washington Post article. However, there are a lot of people like Jestin Coler (and his 20+ writers) who “insists this [creating fake news] is not about money. It’s about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election.” (source– NPR).

While we like to blame social media and writers for the epidemic of fake news, it’s up to us as content-consumers to verify what we are reading. And hopefully a lot more of us start caring about the quality of what we are consuming.

How can we prevent fake news from spreading?

The first and obvious way to prevent fake news from spreading is to refrain from creating it or sharing it at all.

Here are some other tips:

  • Bookmark some of the sources listed in this post that identify some of the better known fake news outlets and stories.
  • Determine who wrote the piece in question- the byline. Verify the author’s history and reputation as a writer, as well as the sources they are using.
  • Identify when (date and time) the piece in question was published. Note:“Breaking News” is continuously updated.
  • Notice how the piece makes you feel when you read it. If you get enraged, take a breath and check the facts before sharing it.
  • Use sources and 3rd party fact-checkers to verify facts in the articles you encounter, such as Politifact, Factcheck.org, The Washington Post Fact Checker. And use the SharetheFacts.org’s widget.

 

We should never believe anything we read without thinking about it first, especially if it conjures up intense emotions. And we should always use our critical thinking skills.

Share this post if you want others to be more aware too!

 

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