You may have heard about the "pizzagate" conspiracy -- fake news about a supposed child-sex ring operating from a pizzeria in Washington, DC. A heavily armed citizen drove from North Carolina to the pizzeria to investigate to investigate the bogus child-sex ring supposedly run by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The reality: no sex ring. That citizen had been duped by fake news. Shots were fired, and thankfully nobody was hurt.
CBS News reported that the pizzagate conspiracy had been promoted by Michael G. Flynn, son of retired General Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump's pick for national security adviser. As a result, the younger Flynn resigned Tuesday from President-Elect Trump's transition team.
I use the phrase "fake news" for several types of misleading content: propaganda, unproven or fact-free conspiracy theories, disinformation, and clickbait. The pizzagate incident highlighted two issues: a) fake news has consequences, and b) many people don't know how to distinguish real news from fake news. So, while political operatives reportedly have used a combination of fake news, ads, and social media to both encourage supporters to vote and discourage opponents from voting, there clearly are other real-life consequences.
To help people spot fake news, NPR reported:
"Stopping the proliferation of fake news isn't just the responsibility of the platforms used to spread it. Those who consume news also need to find ways of determining if what they're reading is true. We offer several tips below. The idea is that people should have a fundamental sense of media literacy. And based on a study recently released by Stanford University researchers, many people don't."
The report is enlightening. In the "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning" report, researchers at Stanford University tested about 7,804 students in 12 states between January 2015 and June 2016. They found:
"... at each level—middle school, high school, and college—these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Our “digital natives” may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped... We would hope that middle school students could distinguish an ad from a news story. By high school, we would hope that students reading about gun laws would notice that a chart came from a gun owners’ political action committee. And, in 2016, we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation... Many [people] assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite."
This is important for both individuals and the future of the nation because:
"For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off... Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it. At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish."
While the study focused upon students, but older persons have been duped, too. The suspect in the pizzeria incident was 28 years old. The Stanford report focused upon what teachers and educators can do to better prepare students. According to the researchers, additional solutions are forthcoming.
What can you do to spot fake news? Don't wait for sites and/or social media to do it for you. Become a smarter consumer. The NPR report suggested:
- Pay attention to the domain and URL
- Read the "About Us" section of the site
- Look at the quotes in a story
- Look at who said the quotes
All of the suggestions require readers to take the time to understand the website, publication, and/or publisher. A little skepticism is healthy. Also verify the persons quoted and whether the persons quoted are who the article claims. And, verify that any images used actually relate to the event.
We all have to be smarter consumers of news in order to stay informed and meet our civic duties, which includes voting. Nobody wants to vote for politicians that don't represent their interests because they've been duped. To the above list, I would add:
- Read news wires. These sites include the raw, unfiltered news about who, when, where, and what happened. Some suggested sources: : Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and United Press International (UPI)
- Learn to recognize advertisements
- Learn the differences between different types of content: news, opinion, analysis, satire/humor, and entertainment. Reputable sites will label them to help readers.
If you don't know the differences and can't spot each type, then you are likely to get duped.