America just completed an especially volatile and polarizing Presidential election. This was the first major election where both sides waged war not simply using traditional means (pounding the pavement, call centers, and mailers), but using online digital tools. On Facebook and Twitter, stories were shared, hashtags were created, and mud-slinging took on new levels. New research from PEW suggests that most American adults now consume news via Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit being the most popular). Television news (both local and national) is still the most prominent source of news, but it is quickly giving way to the internet of things.
This in and of itself is not inherently bad. I have given up my print subscription to various news and magazines sites in favor of their digital platforms. This fits with my desire to have the most up to date news, travel-friendly options, and to keep a lower eco footprint. However, what has sprung up and been the topic of much debate is the prevalence of fake news, especially on social media platforms such as Facebook.
The Guardian and Buzzfeed News have both posted investigative articles highlighting the proliferation of fake news websites and stories targeting America’s vitriolic Presidential election. The motives are less about changing political minds and more about cashing in on the election’s most passionate members. Clickbait headlines titled: “Hilary in 2013: I would like to see people like Donald Trump run for office; They’re honest and can’t be bought!” or “Mike Pence says Michelle Obama is the most vulgar first lady we’ve ever had!” These are fairly mild titles, others claim to reveal sex tapes of candidates (or their spouses), calls for a race war, or endorsements from the Pope.
These news sites set up pages on Facebook and encourage their users to share, share, share! The more shares and clicks, the more revenue these sites see from tools such as Google’s adsense. While Facebook, Google, and other organizations are working on ways to combat fake news, the process will be slow and users should not rely on these media to serve as filters for them. Instead, educators should focus even more on teaching themselves and their students to be more digitally literate and savvy. There are a few tools that are in your arsenal to use right away.
Is the Story & Headline Over the Top?
No matter how much you dislike (or even despise) your political opponent, you should immediately be suspicious of a headline that reeks of sensationalism. Claims that an arrest is pending, signs of devil worship, calls for genocide, or other topics that just sound outrageous, go into the story with a cautious attitude.
Is the Story from a Legitimate News Source?
If you are reading a shared story, be sure to check the source. In this day of news clamoring for clicks and ratings, it’s not unusual for them to use sensational headlines to get readers. However, check for the author and publisher. Established news sources (The New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, your local paper, etc) have systems in place to confirm sources and vet information. If you have never heard of the news organization publishing the article or they do not have an author listed, be suspicious.
Read the Article
This may seem a little obvious, but a lot of people share headlines rather than stories. Read the story yourself and see if it matches the headline. I recently read a story
entitled “President of Mexico contacts President-Elect Trump to Discuss Details of the Wall.” However, when you read the story, it simply said that the President of Mexico had contacted President-elect Trump to congratulate him on his win (a common practice by all foreign governments). Reading an article may also make it clear that the news information is suspect. If it contains a lot of typos and grammatical errors, that is a red flag. Legitimate news sources proofread and edit all articles prior to publication. While a typo or two make sneak through, it’s a rarity.
Check the Source Information
If the article claims that Wikileaks, public statements, tax documents, or other information “reveals” information, they should be linking or providing copies of that information. I have seen New York Times articles on the Clinton email scandal directly link back to the Wikileaks information dump. If the article contains no evidence or sources to back it up, assume the information is false.
Look for other Verifying Sources
While one news source may trump another on a story, they all will get to it eventually. If you read a story, confirm it with another source. If you see a sensational topic being covered by one outlet only, the information is suspect. The issue of media-bias is often cited as the reason one news outlet covers a story. However, there are numerous left and right leaning legitimate news organizations. No single outlet is the purveyor of the truth. Follow the journalistic mandate of “at least two independent, reliable sources.”
Perhaps the best way to avoid getting tricked by false news stories on social media is to keep yourself well informed by reading, watching, and listening to a variety of news outlets. The more informed you are of the current trends and cycles in the news, the more likely you are to immediately smell out a false story.