The Misinformation Age: Fake news can be dizzying, but there are ways to sort fact from fiction.
January 6, 2017
VAIL — When the internet first started becoming commonplace in homes across America, and more broadly, across the world, we were told not to trust anyone we met on the internet for fear that the fellow 12-year-old we met in a chat room might actually be a 45-year-old predator. My, how times have changed. Nowadays, the internet has increasingly become a forum for conspiracy theories and a growing number of clickbait sites that peddle fake news, to millions of users who dutifully post it to social media, or use the information to solidify personal beliefs. It's a dizzying bombardment of misinformation that can make it hard to understand current events and comprehend honest journalism, but there are ways to decipher hoax stories from accurate reporting.
Identifying the problem
How did we get here? Alexios Mantzarlis leads the International Fact-Checking Network for Poynter, a global educator and resource for news organizations, journalists and aspiring writers, and said proliferation of these stories via mediums such as Facebook has taken a small-scale problem and escalated it exponentially.
"I think the problem is as old as time, but the scale seems novel," he said via email, "It didn't use to be the case that so many hoax stories could get in front of so many eyeballs with so little investment. It is also true that Facebook — rightly criticized for being a big part of the problem — also makes quantifying the spread of fake news easier than ever before."
The spread has led to a lucrative career for some of the writers who disseminate these stories, with website curators drawing salaries from ads because of how many eyes are drawn to their pages. An article by National Public Radio, published on Nov. 23, interviewed the owner of Disinformedia, a company that posts fake content to a number of fictitious news sites, who said that while he wasn't willing to disclose his personal income "stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him."
Although technology has increased our ability to find more information faster than ever, a recent study by Pew Research Center validated the idea that fake news has had a confusing effect on consumers. According to a Pew study published on Dec. 15, 64 percent of Americans say that fake news has sowed a great deal of confusion about the state of current events, with 23 percent of study participants saying that they've shared a fake news story.
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Even using the term fake news has been detrimental to the cause. The term has caught on in the same way its stories are used to push falsified agendas, with unpopular ideas and political spin being stamped as fraudulent as opposed the normal dissecting of information readers should prepare themselves for when researching a topic.
"Fact-light spin is not new and we'd been served it before, we need to discern the really outrageously false and the many half-truths and exaggerations," added Mantzarlis.
Deciphering fact from fiction
The first step readers can take when approaching news — whether from a trusted or untrusted source — is to look at news as a map to the writer's conclusion; can you follow his or her steps to the same conclusion? For example, if a writer makes sweeping claims about a topic or a current event with no attribution — quotes, data, or reports from official organizations — then how can you possibly validate that information unless you blindly trust whoever is telling the story? Even if you always turn to certain sources for news, vetting their stories for attribution is an important part of deciphering how that author reached their conclusion. Similarly, blind trust is a dangerous thing.
Following this map can also lead to holes in journalism — jumping to conclusions, feeding a personal opinion or manipulating facts to fit an agenda. Good journalism should read like the scientific method; readers should walk away with a healthy understanding or skepticism of how an author came to the findings he or she did.
Vetting a story can be tricky and time consuming for the average reader, as often contributing sources to fake sites are made up, or the site itself seems like a legitimate source of news. Let's look at an example. A story published on abcnews.com.co on Dec. 11 claims, "Obama signs executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools nationwide." That seems outrageous, ridiculous, far-fetched or typical — depending on your political views — but there's outward links in the story to back up the information.
A first clue that the story might be fake is the website; while the logo and name — abcnews.com.co — is meant to sound like a legitimate source, it's not abcnews.com, the actual site for the American Broadcasting Company. Secondly, the article cites Executive Order 13738, which when researched through archives.gov via the Executive Orders Disposition Tables Index, shows the exact text and signature of President Obama on Order 13738 that amends Executive Order 13673, which provides policy for fair pay and safe workplaces.
There's a host of other clues that readers can click and read through to trace the author's steps on this one; from outgoing links to Wikipedia pages — not a legitimate source — to a quote from an anti-masturbation dolphin (I really wish I could make this stuff up), to a rambling section attributed in quotes to the owner of fact-checking website Snopes.com full of outward links to other fact checking websites that disprove most of what the article claims.
And while this is obviously fake, the story has garnered over 9,000 views, with many comments expressing outrage that the president's administration could conceive of such a policy. The fact is, many people don't click outward links, or read through a full article to validate their outrage.
Using technology to stop the spread
Facebook, as of last month, is trying to offer solutions to readers trying to decipher fact from fiction when it comes to current events.
"We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves, so we're approaching this problem carefully," wrote Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management for News Feed, in a blog post. "We've focused our efforts on the worst of the worst, on the clear hoaxes spread by spammers for their own gain, and on engaging both our community and third party organizations."
As such, the social media network will allow users to flag content from obvious hoax sites, such as the story from abcnews.com.co, and will send disputed stories from validated sites to fact-checkers at third party websites. Stories that are found to have false information will be flagged so that readers can read a fact checker's report on why the information is false, and anyone who tries to share such stories will be prompted with a message that notifies them that the story has been shown to be a hoax.
Another way to vet stories for honest reporting is through a medium like Snopes.com, Factcheck.org, or Politifact.com, which basically do all the work referenced above, with external links to all the sources where they found their information.
The important takeaway is to approach every story with a bit of objectivity — even if it's your favorite commentator or political pundit — and ask, "Where did they get that from?" It might be more time consuming, but vetting article attributions and reading a range of news across a spectrum — even if it's not something you typically agree with — might get you closer to the truth.