Fake News (and How to Spot It)

November 18, 2016

Perhaps you’ve heard about the great Fake News debacle that has been the talk of the internet since the election. If you happen to be out of the loop, let’s just say that fake news websites became increasingly popular on Facebook and other social media. Let’s discuss a few things about this dilemma.

What is fake news?

Fake News refers to any article or video that is passed off as news when it is really satire, a hoax, or otherwise false. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious:

the-onion

Sometimes the articles and sites themselves are pretty convincing in appearance:

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-10-24-30-am

The Denver Post, an actual news site, released a statement about this article. They even included a handy set of steps for investigating news to determine its legitimacy:

  • The domain denverguardian.com was first registered in July 2016 and is hosted by GoDaddy.
  • This story is the only story showing up under the “News” section and all other sections are turning up errors.
  • There is no Walkerville, Maryland. There is a Walkersville, Maryland, but the city does not have a police department, making the quote from “Walkerville Police Chief Pat Frederick” null and void.
  • The address listed for the newsroom is a tree in a parking lot next to a vacant bank building on Colfax.

– The Denver Post

How does fake news spread?

Fake news spreads just like everything else does on social media – likes, shares, comments, retweets, and other forms of interaction. And thanks to how many social media algorithms spread items that are interacted with heavily to reach a larger audience, things can spread just as quickly when people comment that they are fake as when people comment that they are true.

Let’s illustrate this example. Say that I share two articles on Facebook – one is obviously fake, and one is from a reputable news source. I get a few likes and maybe a share on the real news, but the fake news gets comments about how “obviously fake” it is, multiple likes and reacts, and even more shares – all because people thought it was funny. And sure, maybe it even is funny (I, for one, love The Onion). But because more people interacted with the “fake” news, it will have a better chance at reaching more people than the “real” news.

As these things spread, the chance that someone will take something seriously that should be taken as a joke increases. This is incredibly true when people skim articles, or worse, only read headlines.

What should be done about fake news?

This is the big question, and the one that has always been and will always be a big question. The issue is one of free speech – it is completely legal for parody news sources to operate. And I really don’t want to see this change. Think of all the gems we’d be without if restrictions were placed on the portrayal of fake items as real on the internet:

The list could seriously go on for a while.

So how do we keep the internet funny and informative? It starts with reading comprehension and an understanding of how to discern what is a factual source. And maybe, just maybe, we should learn to take everything with a grain of salt. Posting something online doesn’t make it true, and facts can often be portrayed in ways that twist their perceived emotional value. Read beyond the headlines, and think critically about the content – not just what it says, but who wrote it, and who the intended audience is.

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Gary is a team member at Sephone, helping to design, build and maintain websites. He is also a web design student at the New England School of Communications of Husson University.

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