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Earlier this week I saw headlines about U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. They clarified that the provocative congresswoman wasn’t actually stoned, as had been reported. I didn’t know that people thought the prominent tea-party conservative ever was high.
It turns out, she never was. (At least as far as we know).
The “news” broke in an intentionally phony article from Newslo, an upstart “satire” website that I had never heard of until this week. Another satiric site, the Daily Currant, continues to fool real journalists in institutions as revered as the Washington Post.
And just last month, a fake news story had some real-world implications. Actual taxpayer dollars were spent to step up security at Argonne elementary school in San Francisco because of a fake news story about a fictional school named “Argon” where a non-existent atheist teacher suspended a fictional student for saying, “Merry Christmas.” It was a mockery of Fox News’ annual reportorial narrative on what they describe as a “war on Christmas.”
The story was liked more than 20,000 times.
The fake news phenomenon seems to be devolving into a something of an epidemic. It not only makes journalists look dumb, it is dangerous for our trade.
For one, everyone loves The Onion and The Daily Show. These were early pioneers of the fake news movement, and they remain staples of American entertainment and social commentary. But even today there are countless people who still believe Onion stories, so much so that there’s an entire website, LiterallyUnbelievable.org, devoted to shaming Facebook users who believe such stories.
Due to the success of comedic fake news sites, more and more are cropping up. Often, they just aren’t very funny.
The Onion works because it pokes fun at how we live and the world around us. But when someone wrote that Michele Bachmann was stoned, it wasn’t particularly humorous. It lacked subtlety or insight into human nature. It was just a writer making fun of Bachmann and her politics.
It was only minimally different when a fake news writer sold the idea that Kanye West said he is the next Nelson Mandela.
Ultimately, such headlines are just the fake 21st-century equivalent of those absurd supermarket tabloids we all learned to ignore long ago. People often fell for some of those, too.
Another problem is people’s generally insufficient understanding of media, both traditional and new — and the differences between them. For decades, newspapers dealt with reader complaints by assigning editors to select, edit and publish letters, because the public couldn’t tell the difference between news articles and reader submissions.
In 2013, social media and even a small number of online news outlets began to become financially viable at the same time thanks partly to money trickling in from “sponsored posts,” especially on Twitter and Facebook.
These paid-for advertisements are carefully disguised as organically shared posts and, in the 21st century, few readers can discern the difference.
This happens even on respected news sites, including some owned by the Boston Globe. These sponsored advertisement stories are published without any review by a journalist or editor, like when a hoax story about New York Times columnist Paul Krugman filing for bankruptcy went viral.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the fake news epidemic is that people want to believe such stories to confirm what they already think. Some people on the left want to believe that Michele Bachmann would get arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana to reaffirm their belief that it is the absurd alternative to what they really believe, that she is crazy. The same thing happens on the right with absurd reports about Barack Obama’s origins.
The rise of the Internet has also magnified the historic echo chamber within the media. (People in the industry have always influenced each other, but now they react to breaking news together almost instantaneously over social media.)
But there are other factors. Personalized searches on Google and targeted online marketing fuel that trajectory as well, feeding back to web readers information and articles designed to reinforce what they enjoy. People who watch Fox News or religiously read liberal websites continually have their views reaffirmed. This is the virtual world’s version of people who always hang out and talk politics with like-minded people.
This national movement of people who congregate in their own political echo chambers was detailed in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” a 2008 book written by journalist Bill Bishop. Among other things, he wrote that people in such environments become more extreme in their beliefs, and less open to new ideas.
“Even in the case where someone accepts that this (fake) story is false, it isn’t clear that they’ll accept (that) an actual ‘war on Christmas’ is false,” Brendan Nyhan, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, told the San Francisco Chronicle in the article about the elementary school. “No one thinks they’re misinformed.”
Even during a Wednesday panel discussion for a journalism film series here in Honolulu, two members of the audience said the recent New York Times article about the GMO debate on the Big Island was the most biased piece of writing they had ever read. They even suggested that the respected journalist Amy Harmon might be a paid acolyte for biotech companies.
I had read that article and I came away from it thinking it was one of the most well-researched and objective writings on the GMO debate in months.
Anyway, here are some pointers to help people to decide whether they can trust a source of information:
The Daily Currant has fooled many people into thinking their stories are real. No, Amy Chua of Tiger Mom fame never actually said this.
Is it a world-changing or scandalous news story from a website you have never heard of? It is probably fake. If people actually bothered to click on a story and spend about 30 seconds looking around a given site, many of these fake news items would die a quick death.
Forbes.com hosts hundreds of otherwise unaffiliated bloggers and contributors, none of whom are actual journalists for Forbes, but they are regularly featured on the front page.
News sites now often have “user-generated content,” or they host community blogs or writers they have little or no editorial control over. Do you respect Forbes Magazine as a business source? Don’t believe everything on the site, because Forbes now hosts hundreds of unpaid writers who are hardly monitored. The Washington Times has a similar system and many people use the title of professional “columnist” when there is little or nothing professional about their work.
Even Hawaii News Now hosts a “community section” that frequently contains press releases from public relations executives. It’s a common PR tactic to piggyback on an established, trusted brand and their search engine optimization. Consider the author and the sources of information.
Make sure to do online searches of other news sources to verify something that sounds too good or too extreme to be true. If you see a viral report on Kim Jong Un feeding his uncle to 120 dogs, Google it to seek credible verification.
This doesn’t always work because reports like the Bachmann hoax fools so many people, but news consumers should read between the lines. Did a site do any original reporting or are they just aggregating or repackaging information from elsewhere. Did the writer merely cite someone else’s reporting and link back to that original source — a website that you have never heard of?
It is a website whose sole existence is to fact-check urban legends and myths. It was founded in 1995, but today it remains as necessary as ever.
Find a news source you can trust that is not popularly known to have a clear political agenda. That can be difficult to know, but it’s safe to say that most of your favorite mainstream media organizations are fine — at least most of the time. At the very least, they will take steps to correct themselves when they make mistakes.