Has the fake news scandal left you wondering what to believe?
Then try this: Make a list of where you get your news and information — all the traditional and alternative news sources as well as social media and click bait that pop up on Facebook or Twitter. That’s what I ask the students to do in my news literacy class in the Journalism Program at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
Students determine the credibility of what they are reading by discovering who’s behind the website itself (“About”) as well as the sources of information in a story, such as the titles of people who are quoted, whether they are authorities on the subject and are self-interested or not. They also look for links to other websites, studies or official documents.
Then the students examine the quality of evidence provided in the story as well as assertive language and tone. Is the story fair and balanced, and how do we judge that? Does it seem like a reliable story? Why or why not?
By the end of the semester, they look and listen with a more critical eye.
These questions are drawn from news literacy techniques developed by Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. A Stanford University study confirms the need for news and literacy education. The study of students’ ability to evaluate information found that students are “easily duped” by social media. The authors, who surveyed over 7,800 middle school-to-university students, said the results were “stunning and dismaying.”
News literacy education tackles two problems that are leading readers away from credible information: fake news websites posing as “independent news” or alternative news. Fake news perpetrators post satirical or made-up stories that bring them significant advertising dollars.
Is social media to blame? Can fake news be stopped? FOX news analyst Howard Kurtz notes that social media companies are struggling to control hoaxes and “utter fiction.” Meanwhile the New York Times reports that Google and Facebook “take aim” at fake news.
Some websites claim to be “independent” but are on a mission to criticize corporate-owned media — “the establishment” — rather than provide balanced or fair reporting. You can tell because they usually assert one-sided opinions and frequently fail to back up these assertions with verifiable evidence, or are selective in what they provide.
First, it’s important for students to know the difference between fact-based news — which can be verified by reliable, authoritative, independent sources — and propaganda, which is generated by governments and political movements using manipulation and deception in order to garner support or trigger action.
Next there’s advertising — information generated to sell products and services — and that includes native advertising, which can be hard to distinguish from editorial content unless it’s labeled as advertising or sponsored content. Publicity, entertainment and raw, original information that hasn’t been filtered or verified by anyone must also be identified.
News literacy focuses on news; media literacy is a broader term that includes advertising and publicity. In media literacy education students analyze messages and discover the motivation behind the message. They learn about the impact of media on society, how media are produced and what influences media.
In news literacy, you “deconstruct” stories to test their reliability and credibility, then determine what to conclude from the news report. That helps you decide what responsible action to take and whether to share the information.
Some news organizations are getting to the bottom of fake news. The New York Times, Washington Post and National Public Radio, among others, have in-depth interviews with people who made a lot of money creating fake news, some of whom did not support Donald Trump but found that Trump supporters were the most likely to believe fake stories.
In “Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory,” The New York Times interviewed a fake news creator in the capital of the nation of Georgia and another one in Vancouver. They said laudatory stories about Donald Trump — real and fake — were driving far more traffic (and advertising revenue) than those about Hillary Clinton. Most of the work is cut and pasted from other sites, or is made up and satirical, such as Obama planning to move to Canada if Trump wins.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has taken some steps to block fake news stories, such as one in which the Pope endorsed Trump, but algorithms may not be able to do that adequately. Fake news perpetrators are hard to fight. Facebook says it will no longer let fake-news sites use its advertising platforms, but it remains to be seen whether this will be effective.
In an interview with the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, fake news creator Paul Horner said he thinks “it’s scary” that people don’t care about the truth. Here’s what he said about Donald Trump:
“He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.”
Dewey asked Horner whether he thinks that fake news somehow helped Trump get elected: “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
Horner also said he wrote anti-Muslim stories —“and people went along with it!”
NPR hired a tech expert to track down a fake story on Hillary Clinton, which led to its news creator, Jestin Coler, founder of “Disinfomedia.” Reporter Laura Sydell interviewed him:
“He says he got into fake news around 2013 to highlight the extremism of the white nationalist alt-right,” according to Sydell’s story.
“The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of infiltrate the echo chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction,” Coler says.
“He was amazed at how quickly fake news could spread and how easily people believe it. He said that people from the alt-right in particular were drawn to fake news; not so with liberals, who wouldn’t take the bait, or debunked it quickly. He says it’s not just a Trump-supporter issue; it’s a right-wing issue, and that it’s been around.
In news literacy terms, this is about readers believing only what they want to believe, no matter how many facts are available that counter that belief — such as the Obama birther issue. Another term for this behavior is cognitive dissonance — that people will seek information that confirms their biases rather than face the discomfort of an alternative view.
The NPR reporter asked Coler how to fix the problem of fake news, and he pointed to media literacy.
“Some of this has to fall on the readers themselves,” Coler said. “The consumers of content have to be better at identifying this stuff. We have a whole nation of media-illiterate people. Really, there needs to be something done.”
PolitiFact has vowed to fight back against fake news “to help our readers sort fact from fiction on their social media feeds.” Blacklisted news and others say the establishment media are declaring war on sites that promote “diverse” political viewpoints from the alt-right to so-called progressive and lumping them in with satirical and fake news sites.
The National Review’s Andrew Stuttaford suggests that fake news is a result of the “corrosion of reason” in the West. He points to comments by Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill that the rise of fake news speaks to the “declining moral and cultural authority of our own political and media class.” He says that the “Western world’s own abandonment of objectivity” has “nurtured something of a free-for-all on the facts and news front.”
The jury will be out for a while on that theory. In the meantime, news literacy tools empower us to read critically and to venture into uncomfortable territory. Armed with these analytical skills we may find some kernels of truth among the myths we find along the way. As readers and community members, we hold the power to become media literate and do something about misinformation.
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