In early December of last year, a man walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria and threatened employees and customers with a rifle, firing several shots inside the restaurant. He came to this restaurant believing that it was the center of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. Yes, you read that right. The so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory is an extreme example of how stories that are completely ludicrous can not only be taken to be true but can have real consequences. The 2016 election saw the spread of so-called “fake news” – stories that are passed around as legitimate when in fact they are stories that are fabricated or heavily skewed. A particularly popular one was that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President of the United States in the closing days of the campaign (his Holiness did not, in fact, endorse Trump).
These stories are able to spread rapidly via social media, with people sharing them among their friends. When you see a news story on your friends’ Facebook or Twitter feeds, how do you know if it’s legitimate or not? It’s a common problem. According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds get at least some of their news from social media. Although Pew’s surveys have shown that people are more wary of news stories they encounter online, their survey data also shows that around a third of Americans have shared a fake news story online. The rise of fictitious stories being promoted and shared around social media can contribute to a less-informed public. A common example is from the initial debate around the Affordable Care Act, when several sites on the Internet picked up and spread the false notion that the healthcare reform law included “death panels” that would decide if sick people would receive life-saving care or not. Despite this claim being PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” in 2009, the notion of “death panels” negatively shaped the public’s initial perception of the ACA.
The problem of determining which news stories and sources are trustworthy or not is especially relevant for Hendrix students who, like most college students, tend to get their news from Twitter and other non-conventional platforms. In a survey of students from Hendrix Today, the overwhelming majority of students surveyed said they received their news primarily from online sources. Only 3 of the 44 students surveyed indicated that their primarily news platforms were newspapers or TV broadcasts.
One student who likes using social media as a news outlet in particular is Guneev Sharma ’17. Sharma says he likes using Twitter for news as it allows him to get a steady stream of updates as stories unfold. He says he follows the major news networks such as CNN and Fox as well as more politically focused outlets such as Politico and The Hill.
“If most of the sources are tweeting the same facts,” Sharma said, “I’ll deem it to be true.”
He says that he always moves beyond the tweet’s headline and checks out the stories being reported online as a way to learn more. When it comes to Facebook, Guneev says he always Googles the stories that pop up to confirm that they’re true.
“I’ll determine if it’s true if there’s no other news organization refuting the facts and if all sources are credible and not just on Breitbart or Occupy Democrats,” Sharma said.
Greer Veon ’17 tries to rely on more conventional platforms such as broadcast news, which she makes a point of trying to watch in the morning while she gets ready for her day. Veon likes to stick to more established news organizations like CBS, where she interned this past summer. This experience gave her a more inside perspective of what good journalism is supposed to look like, with advice from CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley serving as particularly relevant: always ask yourself, is it right, is it fair, and is it honest? This advice can be helpful for both journalists as well as critical news consumers.
“I notice when reading stories created by younger brands (Snapchat shows a lot from Buzzfeed, for example), there’s a definite bias within the writing,” Veon said. “This is why the writing is a key aspect in what I look at when deciding what’s trustworthy or not,” Veon says, with the wording used for the headlines of news reports in particular being critical.
Her tips for watching news broadcasts center on the questions being asked by anchors and correspondents: “Are they asking questions for both sides of an issue? Are they attacking a side they don’t agree with?” Greer’s tips for filtering out biased and fake news from the real, objective thing have much in common with tips on how to spot fake news from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org. The tips are fairly simple, from reading beyond the headline to checking to see the evidence cited in support of the story actually back up what’s being reported.
Seeking out news organizations that are trustworthy and that consistently produce high-quality journalism is just as important as avoiding dubious sources of information. There are several outlets in the United States and in Great Britain that have been recognized for their work in the journalism field. These include wire services such as the Associated Press and Reuters, which supply syndicated news stories to local newspapers, newspapers considered to be more liberal in their editorial work, such as the New York Times, and newspapers considered to be more conservative, such as The Wall Street Journal.
Once one knows how to avoid falling for fake news stories, the next step is to approach news spread online, and on social media in particular, with a critical lens. If there’s a story going around Twitter or popping up on several friend’s Facebook pages, take a second to examine the story closer before sharing and passing it along to your network. A better-informed discourse with our relatives and our old high-school classmates on Facebook and other social media platforms starts with all sides being able to recognize the (non-alternative) facts.
This story orginally appeared in the April Print Edition of the Profile
Photo credit: Aditya Katke