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The Threat of Fake News

UPDATED February 16, 2019 10:43 am .


Francis Cordor
February 16, 2019 10:43 am

This year’s presidential election introduced us to a new and growing problem: fake news. We’ve all seen legitimate-looking news reports spouting what appears to be news. If we’re lucky, or perhaps skeptical enough to dig deeper, we’ll discover that the report is fake. Pure garbage filled with half-truths or outright lies. However, the damage has already been done. Many people will believe it, either because it supports their preexisting beliefs (a phenomenon called confirmation bias) or because they trust the source (if it’s in the news, it must be true, right?).

What’s the danger? Some are suggesting fake news played a role in the outcome in this year’s presidential election. Fingers have been pointed at Russia, both for its alleged email hacking and for spreading misinformation via fake news stories and by trolling social media.

This isn’t just a US problem, either. According to a recent Washington Post article, Austria and Germany Brace for Barrage of Fake News, a fake Facebook user has been spreading fake news about Green Party Chairwoman Eva Glawischnig calling her a “corrupt klutz” and “lousy traitor.” Austria’s president-elect, Alexander van der Bellen, had been targeted earlier by this same profile with news reports saying he was suffering from cancer and dementia.

Think about the power that whomever is behind fake news reports has for a moment. Would you vote for someone to lead your country if you believed he or she was dying of cancer or suffering from dementia (or both)? The stakes are high!

In addition to the potential for undue influence over presidential elections by a foreign power, fake news has also incited violence. Take pizza-gate as a prime example. A fake news story had been circulating about a child sex-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and headquartered at Comet Ping Pong restaurant. As if that weren’t bad enough, the pizza restaurant’s owner has received hundreds of death threats, one of which almost came true when a vigilante took matters, and an AR-15 assault-style rifle and .38 caliber revolver, into his own hands.

So, what counts as fake news? You’re likely familiar with The Onion, which is a satirical website that pokes fun at the media, current events, and news. While its stories are usually fictional, they aren’t fake per se. They are satire. There’s a difference.

Satire, by definition, is

“…the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”

The difference between satire and fake news is in its intention. Satire is not intended to be interpreted as real news. According to ThatsFake.com, satire’s humor attempts to be obvious to the reader, and thus not misinterpreted as being real. In contrast, fake news is intended to trick people into believing that it is real news.

Speaking of motivation, let’s look at why fake news is on the rise. Influencing elections is certainly a compelling theory, but in all practicality, it could boil down to making a few bucks. You see an incredulous fake news story and believe it’s true. What are you going to do? You might click that “share” button on social media which, in turn, translates into additional page views, which, if the originator of the story participates in a pay-per-view or pay-per-click program, translates into money in the purveyor of fake news’ pocket.

In fact, Buzz Feed, which is notorious for its own “clickbait” headlines, reported on a “digital gold rush” going on in a small town in Macedonia where locals launched at least 140 pro-Trump websites (i.e., TrumpVision365.com and USConservativeToday.com) for the sole purpose of lining their pockets. According to the report, teens and young adults in this town had no political agenda; they didn’t care about Trump. They did, however, find that Trump supporters were receptive to their messages and shared their fake content across Facebook. As an example, a single post about a Hillary Clinton indictment generated 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Misleading headlines and hyperbolic clickbait are also part of the problem. They exist solely to persuade you to click. When you do, you’ll likely arrive at a site filled with ads. The content itself may or may not be fake, and may not even align with what was promised in the headline. Even if you don’t click, the headline’s message may have influenced you because it looks credible or supports your predetermined beliefs.

As fake news proliferates and awareness grows, you may not know what to believe. While entities like Facebook and Google are starting to address the problem, it’s up to each of us to learn how to recognize fake news when we see it.

  • Consider the source. Is it a legitimate news organization or does it just sound like one? Is it a fake masquerading as a real site (i.e., ABCNews.com.co)? Is it an organization with a political slant or agenda? For example, expect an alt right perspective from Breibart News Network and a more liberal one from NPR. Though legitimate partisan sites aren’t necessarily sharing fake news, they do have an agenda and tend to share only the good about their side and the bad about the other side.
  • Consider your own bias. We all have our own beliefs, but we’re not always aware of them or how we tend to filter information that confirms our beliefs. For example, if you believe the world is flat, you’ll likely follow like-minded people and subscribe to sites that promote articles that support this belief. You may be so passionate about the flat earth that you close your eyes to other views or susceptible to believing anything that aligns with your views.
  • Be a skeptic. Think twice (if not more) before clicking and definitely before sharing. If a headline seems overly sensational or is baiting you to click, ask yourself if you’re willing to be manipulated for page views.
  • Do some basic fact checking. A quick search on Snopes.com or FactCheck.org is easy to do and could be eye-opening.
  • Report it. Did you know that you can report fake news when you see it on Facebook? Click the down arrow in the upper right corner and click on Report Post.

Fake news is one of the big stories of 2016. While teens in a far-off land making a few pennies off of pay-per-click ads may not bother you, the proliferation of fake news is a serious problem with real consequences.

 

Featured Photo: Courtesy of ensogroup.com








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