Since the advent of journalism, one continuing issue is that of fact checking and the legitimacy of news sources. It is one thing to believe things to be true; it is another thing to know them to be so. But many agree that it wasn’t until President Donald Trump’s campaign and the online flurry of press coverage about him that the term “fake news” became prominent.
The advent of “fake news” prompted a recent Iowa State University study, which reported that tweets containing falsehoods reach 1,500 people on Twitter six times faster than truthful tweets.
But Jevin West, an assistant professor in the Information School at the University of Washington, said, “Fake news is a loaded term. It has been usurped by many groups to mean different things.
“Fake news, as a form of yellow journalism, has been around a long time,” he said, referencing an age-old term. “It is not a new thing. It has been around as long as there has been news, but I do think it is different today in its prevalence, the speed in which it spreads and its potential impact.”
That’s because of the easy access most people have to the internet and social media outlets, and our president’s continued accusation that much of the news about his administration has been made up.
“Fake news is getting so much attention [right now] because our president is saying that sites that are true news, that have reliable sources, are fake news,” said Zoë Colfax, a New Mexico School for the Arts student who follows both real and fake news feeds online.
Still, some might argue that the phrase itself is misleading — and a concept not relegated only to politics in the United States. Giovanni Ciampaglia, an assistant research scientist at the Indiana University, told Generation Next, “In the scientific community, there is a conversation ongoing about whether the term ‘fake news’ is an appropriate one, especially knowing that it has been misappropriated. … We know that worldwide [there are] repressive regimes that now use the term with the excuse of curbing fake news, to fight and to repress the freedom of speech and thought.”
In a modern society so heavily influenced by the presence of social media, anyone can post anything about anyone, and credentials easily can fall by the wayside. Meanwhile, news feeds can quickly become overwhelmed by spam and bots masquerading as reliable sources. Some sites are more infamous than others for the prevalence of their fake news, and teens in particular may be more easily confused by what is truth and what is fiction.
“I actually don’t really see [inaccurate content] on Instagram or Snapchat, but on Facebook you see it a lot,” said Colfax, who added that the sheer quantity of constant, accessible information can be overwhelming. And clicking the “share” button on an interesting headline is sometimes easier than taking the time to verify whether the accompanying information is entirely factual, she said: “The articles are meant to provoke you in some way, so you get really passionate about it. You wanna share it. You wanna show the world.”
That concept is at the the core of the idea of fake news: When a shocking tidbit of information goes viral, passing quickly through multiple outlets with varying degrees of reliability, lies and propaganda can easily be spread nearly instantaneously, as if they were of real import.
One of the ramifications of this flood of misinformation is that it leads to warring definitions of reality. “There are strong financial and propaganda incentives to spread fake news,” West said. “There are foreign adversaries that also have strong reason to just break down trust in a democratic institution. Their goal is to simply inject distrust, confusion and noise into the system.”
In order to reconcile these differing views on reality, it is important to discern what composes those viewpoints, be it truth, misinformation or any mix of the two. Once this has been done, it becomes possible to find a useful and accurate representation of reality amid those masquerading as such. “If [an article seems] suspicious, I look up other websites to add if they have the story, too,” said Colfax on her habit of practicing media literacy.
The veracity of a source is extremely important when it comes to stopping the spread of fake news — Colfax cites websites such as The New York Times and CNN as a key part of her fact-checking routine. West said, “People should be on the lookout for sources that have been known to promulgate fake news. There are lists that show known fake news websites. For example, Wikipedia lists some of this. A good place to check for the veracity of claims from news media are at fact-checking organizations like snopes.com, PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.”
Once such a valuation has been established, there are various ways to establish to what degree of truth a source may have. West suggests you “corroborate your evidence with multiple reliable news sources. … You can check their [fact-checking website’s] archives to see which news organizations are spreading false rumors the most.”
West said it is impossible to stop anyone from creating what we call fake news. But, he said, we can teach people to reduce its spread. That requires people to “think more and share less,” he said. “Read the story rather than just sharing headlines.”
Colfax agreed. “Kids should learn how to source-check and make sure it’s coming from a reliable place,” she said. “And people need to pay more attention to what they’re clicking and sharing and liking and perpetuating.”