What is fake news?
There have always been not wholly “truthful” news stories, in which a journalist may skew facts and express a bias, however, fake news is in a whole different realm. There is even a Museum of Hoaxes in San Diego, California, showcasing the various news stories, conspiracies, and legends throughout America that never actually occurred.
Although fake news is not new, the means by which we gather information has been rapidly revolutionized in the past decade. Just as schoolkids no longer need to visit a library to read an encyclopedia, neither does anyone need to pick up a newspaper to hear the latest who’s who. Likewise, kids are told that Wikipedia is not a reliable source because almost anyone can contribute to it and their expertise is not considered, versus a real encyclopedia where a person can rest assured of its validity.
In a sense, I would argue that fake news is somewhat similar to Wikipedia, in that just about anyone with a web browser can create content. The problem with this, then, is that if a person is not aware that it is not truthful content, he or she will take it at face-value. Although, unlike Wikipedia (for the most part), fake news does not resemble any sort of reality.
Elle Hunt, in an article on The Guardian puts it this way, “In its purest form, fake news is completely made up, manipulated to resemble credible journalism and attract maximum attention and, with it, advertising revenue.” Unlike previous decades, social media platforms allow this disinformation to spread far and wide in a short period of time. People have more access to both creating (personal blogs) and receiving fake news (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
Why does it even exist?
In an article on NPR, Laura Sydell got in touch with a creator of a fake news website named Jestin Coler. After Sydell jumped through hurdles to find him in the suburbs of LA, Coler admitted that he owns a company called Disinfomedia which oversees many fake news websites with dozens of writers contributing to this fad.
He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. -Laura Sydell, “We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator in the Suburbs. Here’s What we Learned”
Sydell notes that Coler’s company wrote the article about the (fake) killing of the FBI agent who leaked Hillary Clinton’s emails in the “Denver Guardian,” which was said to get over 1.6 million views in a week and a half.
It is stories like this that help to explain the obscure and questionable tactic of posting fake news stories. While some argue that fake news largely swayed the election and others beg to differ, there is truth in the fact that people seek to confirm what they already believe.
People believe in information that confirms their priors. In fact, if you present them with data that contradicts their beliefs, they will double down on their beliefs rather than integrate the new knowledge into their understanding. -Danah Boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?”
So, by creating a story and sharing it among people who want to hear it, either to confirm their own beliefs or to prove another side wrong, fake news can travel fast. Coler even mentioned that they would write a fake story and plop it into a network of Trump supporters and it would “spread like wildfire.”
At this point, then, it doesn’t matter if a story is true or not, because an article with a hyperbolic headline will still generate revenue just as any ole news article will. In the follow-up interview after Sydell’s article, Coler expresses that within in his fake news business, there are hundreds of advertisers for his websites and that is how he makes money. He estimated that a typical person in his position would make anywhere from $10,000-$30,000 per month.
So how do I detect fake news?
Becoming more prominent throughout this past election cycle and into Trump’s presidency, where we hear things like Donald Trump calling CNN “fake news,” we are all left to wonder who can I trust? Now more than ever it is increasingly necessary to stay informed and to be media literate. Below are a few tips from an article on NPR by Wynne Davis on how to avoid falling into the trap of fake news.
- “Pay attention to the domain and URL” – they should have a standard URL rather than things like .com.co, even if they look professional
- An extensive list of detected fake news/unreliable websites can be found here
- “Read the “About Us” section – what does it say about the company, leadership, and mission? If you are able to find information about the company elsewhere, that is a good sign
- “Look at the quotes in a story” – are there experts speaking on the topic? If it is a real (or controversial) issue, there should be a decent amount of quotes, especially from researchers and people who are qualified to speak on the issue
- “Look at who said them” – are they reputable? Can you find their name with a Google search, besides on that article?
- “Check the comments” – if the title is exaggerated, trying to capture attention, and cause uproar on Facebook, check to see if any comments mention that the article is misleading – it probably is
- “Reverse image search” – since most fake news authors may not be actual journalists, they probably borrow featured images from the web. If you right-click on an image, you can do a reverse image search to verify whether or not the photo was an original
- Recognize satirical publications – Websites like The Onion and Clickhole often appear in a typical news-writing fashion and can be misleading to some who may perceive these articles as literal, however they are labeled as satirical and comical. If someone in your network does this, politely inform them that it is not real.
Since fake news shows no signs of slowing down, it is vital that we educate others and ourselves on the media landscape of today. By being able to detect these fake news stories, we can collectively slow down the circulation of them, helping both ourselves and those in our networks.