Getting Real About Fake News

By Anna Marie Johnson

Many of us have had this experience recently: You read something odd, exaggerated or outrageous on social media and think, “Could something this odd/exaggerated/outrageous be true?” But have you taken time to investigate?  Most people don’t.

Sometimes the consequences are minor. For example, an ad appeared on social media recently for a Fisher-Price Miniature Bar Play Set, complete with tiny beer bottles and bar stools. Posts immediately disparaged and urged boycotts of the toy company Fisher-Price, which subsequently issued a press release saying the ad was fake.

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Image: Louis Prado, Noun Project. Creative Commons.

Sometimes, however, the consequences can be severe. A conspiracy theory story about a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton first appeared on a white supremacists’ Twitter account and went viral, ultimately leading Edgar Welch to take a gun to a pizza parlor and attempt to shoot people (See “Pizzagate” on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pizzagate_conspiracy_theory).

How can you tell if something is fake or even just misleading? There is no easy formula, and we must first fight our own propensity to believe things we want to be true. However, here are three important ways to avoid spreading fake or misleading news:

  1. Keep a skeptical mindset about any news.

Being skeptical means being a critical thinker and examining your own thinking. When you read story that makes you think, “Wow, that’s unbelievable,” stop and examine that idea. What about the story seems unbelievable? What about your own feelings on the topic make you want to believe the story? What pieces of the story seem to lead you to see the story from the author’s perspective? Often reading beyond the headline is important because headlines are designed to memorable and catch your attention, the details of the story are often far more mundane.

  1. Rely on respected news sources.

Relying on respected news sources is an important piece of the puzzle. Respected news sources follow standards of practice or ethical codes of conduct. They will provide evidence for their claims. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, are all legitimate and respected sources of news. That doesn’t mean they never get anything wrong, it simply means they have a long history of accurately and fairly reporting the stories they cover. Often checking several of them is a good way to get the full perspective on a particular story.

  1. Refuse to share anything you haven’t checked for truth.

When news that is fake or misleading is shared on social media, the problem is compounded, because more hits mean that search engines will surface the news item more readily, more people will see it, and it will seem to attain greater legitimacy.

While there is no surefire formula for detecting fake or misleading news, help is available! The librarians in Ekstrom Library’s Research Assistance and Instruction Department are available to help you decide the quality and legitimacy of news sources. Come by and see us on the first floor in Ekstrom Library’s east wing, call us at (502) 852-0433, or use our chat service to reach us!