Editorials

Don’t trust the media? Stop reading fake news and you might

THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Google and Facebook have announced plans to combat the problem of false news through restrictions on advertising.
Google and Facebook have announced plans to combat the problem of false news through restrictions on advertising. TNS

It would be irresponsible to imply that the “fake news” phenomenon that skyrocketed on Facebook and other social media sites in the buildup to the Nov. 8 election actually swayed the outcome of the presidential race.

Information on such an impact simply doesn’t exist.

Still, fake news — not just arguably slanted but demonstrably false information presented as news — became so widespread during this election cycle that every American should be aware of it.

The online news site Buzzfeed News has released a detailed analysis showing that in the final three months of the election campaign, “20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.”

That’s significantly more than the 7,367,000 similar reader interactions generated by the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News and others.

Think about that. Hoaxes got more attention to these stories than the “mainstream media.”

That includes such false reports as Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS, Clinton being disqualified from holding federal office and an FBI agent involved in the investigation of Clinton’s email being found dead.

The fake reports were predominantly pro-Trump or anti-Clinton. One explanation has been that operators of fake news websites that earn advertising money for each reader engagement simply found a bigger market for stories from those angles.

Buzzfeed News found more than 100 such websites being run out of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The point is not to try to determine the effect of false news on the election.

The point is that unless Americans carefully select the news they consume, learn how to examine the sources of that news and judge its credibility, fake news could do real damage to our communities and our nation.

Part of the problem is that social media are designed to show users more of the types of information they have read before. Readers see what they like.

That’s dangerous because it builds into an echo chamber. It’s easy for users to never see anything from a different point of view.

Echo chambers make it harder for readers to determine what’s real. If all the news supports your views, then it must be right, right?

News doesn’t work that way. It never has, never will — and if ever does, then journalists are missing the real stories.

Politics makes people angry. Liberal, conservative or independent, they read something bad about a candidate they like and their natural tendency is to reject it.

Be angry. Just don’t be ignorant.

If you walked into a coffee shop and asked the room if anyone knew about [insert topic here] wouldn’t you take any advice you get with a grain of salt?

There might be an expert in the crowd, but usually you are talking to people who might have only a cursory knowledge of the topic. We all know that just because someone said or wrote something doesn’t make it true.

So why does skepticism go out the window when we’re online?

“If we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems,” President Barack Obama said Thursday during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Some people say the problem has gotten so bad that we are living in a “post-truth” world.

That is something we all have to reflect on. Journalists must learn effective ways to compete with false information while figuring out why readers flock to fake news sites.

As readers, we all must find reputable sources that do their homework, double-check their work and offer transparency — whether it’s a well-known site like ProPublica or your Uncle Greg, the retired newspaper editor who moderates his own newsletter.

And facts should always be open to verification. It’s one of the reasons reputable news sites put links in online stories, so you can go deeper into the topic if you want.

Be skeptical. Read different perspectives. Treat the internet like that coffee shop — listen to what people say but decide for yourself.

If you find The Washington Post too liberal, fine. But still skim it before moving on.

Don’t like Fox News? Also fine. Give it a glance just to inform yourself of what is being reported.

Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber.

Tried-and-true sources:

The Washington Post

ProPublica

The New York Times

National Public Radio

Your local newspaper

Thomson Reuters

Your local news channels

Associated Press

Texas Tribune

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox

The Wall Street Journal

How to spot fake news:

Does it seem incendiary?

Do you recognize the source?

Does the source cite links, websites that have factual proof?

Have you seen the story reported by other news sources?

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