Were you outraged to learn that the media paid thousands of people to take to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s election?
Did you know that Hillary Clinton is a child sex trafficker?
Were you as shocked as I was when Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump?
Outrageous. Shocking. Downright scandalous.
We have a problem, folks. By we, I mean the news-consuming public and the state of journalism as a whole, because people are gobbling up fake news like it’s Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings. And while legitimate news organizations are finding it hard to swallow, they’re realizing that in many households they’re not even on the table.
I admit at first I underestimated the danger. Everyone did. Sure, I saw the fake news articles on Facebook and other social media, but didn’t’ take them seriously. Who would believe that crap, I thought? Who would be swayed by the cartoonish, unflattering photos, the sensationalist headlines, the often ill written copy and the lack of legitimate sourcing and fact checking?
Turns out, A LOT of people.
On Facebook, I would counter people’s misperceptions with articles from newspapers and from sites like Snopes.com, FactCheck.org and Politfact.
It didn’t matter at all.
In fact I was flabbergasted when more than one person told me, “I NEVER believe ANYTHING the mainstream media says.” They dismissed all fact checking sites as “liberal,” therefore untrustworthy.
I had a discussion about this with Gerald Kato, an old KGMB buddy of mine and now Department Chair of the School of Communications at University of Hawaii.
A huge problem, Kato says, is the lack of accountability. You don’t have an editor, no checks and no standards.
“In journalism,” he says, “we have an ethic of checking it out and to the best of our ability, verifying.”
Those who create fake news have no such ethic. In fact the most interesting thing we’ve discovered is that most of these writers and purveyors of false information are not ideologues. They are after money, pure and simple.
Kato pointed to social media as the enabler.
“Social media provide the mechanism for spreading fake news widely and quickly.”
In other words, fake news is click bait. And click bait is profitable.
“People have become very clever about getting their message across or disguising it to make it seem credible,” says Kato.
One way journalism educators are trying to counter this, he says, is to teach people how to distinguish between real news and propaganda.
Kato directed me to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University. Its mission is to teach students “how to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources.”
One of its goals is to provide curriculum for high schools and the general public, something I think all schools should consider.
In the meantime, is there a way for people to identify the bad from the good?
FactCheck.org has published a guideline on how to spot a fake. It’s fairly in-depth, so I’ll just outline the main points for you here:
*Consider the source. For example, abcnews.com.co is NOT the URL for ABC News. For a pretty good list of fake sites, check out http://www.snopes.com/2016/01/14/fake-news-sites/.
*Read beyond the headline. If a sensational headline drew your attention, it’s probably click bait. Read a little more before passing the article on.
*Check the author. A widely shared story on the pledge of allegiance was supposedly written by a man named Jimmy Rustling, who claims to be a “doctor” who won “fourteen Peabody awards and a handful of Pulitzer Prizes.” FactCheck.org discovered that no one by the name of “Rustling” has won a Pulitzer or Peabody award.
* What’s the support? Many times these bogus stories will cite official — or official-sounding — sources, but once you look into it, the source doesn’t back up the claim.
* Check the date. Some false stories aren’t completely fabricated, but a distortion of real events. For example- a story about Ford shifting production from Mexico to Ohio, supposedly because of Donald Trump’s election victory, happened in 2015 and had nothing to do with Trump. But deceptive websites took the CNN story and “slapped a new headline and publication date on it.”
* Is this some kind of joke? It could be satire.
*Check your biases. This may be the hardest one of all. It’s called “confirmation bias” and people both on the right AND the left fall for articles that confirm their own beliefs.
For example, according to Politifact, “a viral image that circulated last year claims Trump told People magazine in 1998: ‘If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.’ We found no such quote in People‘s archives from 1998, or any other year.”
*Consult the experts— FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact.com.
Bottom line, when it comes to news, be smart. Check it out.