[updated December 2018]
the history, hysteria, and hype –
and how to see through the subterfuge
We live in a digital age of information. At the click of a button we have access to thousands, if not millions, of resources online. But can we trust all of this information? Unfortunately, no. For example, did you know the website MartinLutherKing.org is hosted by Stormfront, a white nationalist organization?
What is Fake News?
There has been an increase (or perhaps an explosion or pandemic) in recent years of fake news. But what is fake news? Fake news can be described as propaganda, a hoax, and/or disinformation that is purposely spread and published as real news – often using social media – with the intent to mislead for political or financial gains. Fake news will often utilize eye-catching headlines and images to increase sharing and views.
The term “fake news” has evolved in recent years to become rather generic and inclusive, encompassing things that may have been considered separate categories at one time (like hoaxes, misinformation, urban legends, satire, propaganda, etc.).
The Very Brief History of Fake News
A 2017 NPR article explains that long before fake news, there were staged photos.
Yellow journalism is a term coined in the 1890s to describe sensational news that is not well-researched but instead strives to be eye-catching to sell more newspapers.
According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, tall-tale postcards emerged in the early 1900s with larger-than-life images of crops and animals, thanks to clever photography and darkroom tricks.
A trip to your local grocery or convenience store’s checkout lane will reveal a plethora of tabloids containing fictional or less than reputable information, often about celebrities; and these tabloids have been in publication for many years (some of which include the National Enquirer, National Examiner, Star, Globe, and Weekly World News).
Social Media (fuel to the fake news flame)
If fake news is nothing new, why is it at the forefront of current issues plaguing society? Insert social media.
Social media usage has exploded in the last several years. It has become part of everyday life. In fact, a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center indicated that 67% of adults get their news from social media. This number is up from 49% in 2012. Social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., have become one stop shops for sharing content, interacting with others, and, you guessed it, getting news.
Sharing content on social media has never been easier. One or two clicks is all it takes. But did you take the time to read more than just the headline before you liked, commented, or shared? Is the source reputable? Unfortunately, fake news outlets use social media to their advantage because the before mentioned questions go unanswered, it is easy for them to share things too, they are able to reach a wide audience, and their headlines or images draw people in (also referred to as clickbait).
With so much information present on social media and the sharing of it, it can be easy to skim something and not realize it might be fake. People do not always take the time to fact check something before sharing or commenting.
Social media cannot be completely blamed, however. People moving away from newspapers, television, and radio to get their news; lack of media literacy; the ease of creating a blog or posting your own stories online; our tendency to trust what we see on the internet; and our tendency to trust the information we receive from friends and family are all contributing factors.
Consequences (so there’s fake news, so what?)
It’s safe to assume we can all agree that fake news is a problem. In fact, according to a Pew Research Center survey, 88% of adults say fake news is either causing some or great confusion about current events and basic facts.
Okay, fake news is a problem; but why is it such a big deal? Well, according to the same Pew Research Center survey, about one in four adults has reported sharing fake news, whether they were aware of it at the time or not.
And that is just with adults. Children and teens are also susceptible to fake news. According to a study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG):
- Over 80% of middle schoolers thought an example of “sponsored content” was a real news story
- Over 30% of high school students thought a fake Fox News account was more reliable than the real one
- “Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite to be true.” — Sam Wineburg, lead author of the report. (Source: report’s press release)
Fakes news has sometimes received more views, shares, etc. than real news. The top 20 election stories on Facebook (from August to November 2016) received the following engagements:
Even journalists and politicians have been known to share or reference fake news. Fake news stories have even spiraled out of control and led to violence (like the “Pizzagate” incident).
A 2018 article from The Atlantic states fake news/ misinformation has fueled the spread of certain health risks, like diseases, not receiving vaccinations, etc.
People often fall victim to fake news because they don’t fact check; the story supports their argument, position, or belief; or the amount of information available is too overwhelming.
So here is the bottom line: fake news is dangerous.
What is the Point of Fake News? (why do people create fake news in the first place?)
- The ugly truth behind fake news: there is big money to be made. The money comes from advertisements. The more clicks/views received, the more ads there are (which results in more money).
- So when it comes to fake news, the more shocking the headline, the more potential for clicks and shares (and money of course).
- In 2016, a teen in Macedonia made $16,000 between August and November with his pro-Trump websites.
- Some examples of fake news have an agenda. They want you to get “fired up” and join their “dark side”.
- Some fake news is just a joke. It is meant to humor and entertain.
- Some stories are created with the purpose of damaging reputations.
- And the list goes on and on.
Categories of Fake Stuff
Fake news has become a rather broad term (including things like hoaxes, misinformation, urban legends, satire, propaganda, etc.). So when breaking things down into categories, it can be more beneficial to use the technical/ scientific term “fake stuff.” There are a few different ways to categorize fake stuff, but generally it can be put into these five categories:
- False/ deceptive
- Stories that are completely made up, no truth to them whatsoever (like the story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for President or the story about Mr. Rogers formerly serving in the military as a sniper and how he wore his iconic sweaters to hide his extensive tattoos)
- Deliberately fabricated news that is intended to mislead or make money through clicks
- Entirely fake news websites or “imposter sites” that are designed to look like a real/ credible website (like abcnews.com.co and the Denver Guardian)
- Chain mail and urban legends commonly fall under this category
- Stories that contain no established baseline for truth but promote an agenda
- These stories will often take a tiny shred of factual information, give it their own spin, and run off with it in a completely different direction
- Examples that fall under this category are intended to “rile you up” (like the story about the craziest person in Congress, Rep. Steve King, wanting to investigate everyone but President Trump)
- Conspiracy theories and propaganda tend to fall into this category
- Slanted/ biased
- Stories that contain truthful elements but certain facts are selectively chosen or omitted to serve an agenda (like gaining headlines)
- The stories that fall under this category are not necessarily false. The stories report true news, but they do so in a biased way.
- Certain content from Fox News, MSNBC, and others could fall under this category (Fox News, The Washington Times, MSNBC, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, etc. don’t have to be completely avoided, but just be aware that biases may exist).
- Content or imagery that is altered falls under this category
- “Doctored” or “Photoshopped” images would also be included (like some of the 2012 viral photos of Hurricane Sandy)
- Humor (satire/ parody/ jokes)
- Stories are purposefully fake with no intention to cause harm, but has the potential to fool people
- Satire news, like content from The Onion, seeks to entertain and be humorous rather than mislead, but people can misinterpret the content as real
Beyond “Fake News”
Alternatively, there is a commendable movement that calls for more precision when categorizing and talking about fake news – doing away with the simple and encompassing term that “fake news” has become. The idea is to make specific distinctions on the many different types of misleading news, which is especially important when considering how to best teach and inform how to spot these different types and how to dissect them.
EAVI (European Association for Viewers Interests) has a superb infographic available online. This Beyond “Fake News” infographic breaks down misleading news into ten categories: propaganda, clickbait, sponsored content, satire and hoax, error, partisan, conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, misinformation, and bogus. Four bonus categories include: false attribution, counterfeit, misleading, and doctored content.
How to Spot Fake News
There are a few quick and easy things you can look for to spot fake news. FactCheck.org has some great advice on how to spot fake news:
It is easy to do a couple quick checks to identify fake or real news. But when in doubt, ask the experts – like librarians! Libraries are a trusted source of information. In fact, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey listed libraries at the most trusted source of information.
Utilizing librarians, library resources, and library databases is a great way of finding credible sources and information, and not to mention avoiding the possibility of running into fake news. Click here to explore the reliable databases available through the North Dakota State Library.
Many libraries across the country are already working to combat the fake news problem. For example, many libraries are creating guides and resources.
The Harvard Library has created a guide that lists 5 ways to spot fake news:
- Consider the source
- Check the URL
- Look for visual clues
- Get a second opinion
- Put your browser to work
Universities and schools are also fighting back against fake news. Librarians have partnered with the University of Michigan to offer a class on fake news called “Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction.”
Many universities, colleges, and schools are adopting the CRAAP Test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose).
Other things to look for to spot fake news:
- ALL CAPS
- Advertisements: excessive pop-ups, banners, etc.
- Assess grammar, spelling, and punctuation
- Use a reverse image search (like TinEye)
- If you’re not sure it’s true, then don’t like, share, or comment!
Only You Can Prevent Fake News
While it is almost impossible to prevent fake news, we can, however, strive to prevent its spread. If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. Let’s all be part of the solution by following these steps:
- Before sharing, commenting, or liking, it is paramount that you read past the title of the article.
- Follow the steps from FactCheck.org, Harvard, and others to identify fake news and determine if there are any red flags.
- Put the article or source to the test and use a fact checking website (like Snopes).
- Use the “Report” option on social media to flag posts that are spam, harmful, or inappropriate. Click the dots or downward arrow at the upper right of the post to report it (check out this video about reporting fake news on Facebook if you need additional assistance).
- Be responsible – Don’t try to fool people by sharing something that could be mistaken as a real story (like the person who intentionally tweeted a fake image of a shark swimming through the streets of Houston).
- When in doubt, chicken out. If you are not sure if the article is true or the source is reliable, then don’t share, like, comment, etc. Think before you share.
There is a lot of information online, and that is unlikely to change. As more things become accessible online, we have to remain vigilant of what is credible and what is not. It is up to us to be responsible enough to decipher what is real and what it fake. Take advantage of the simple advice, the easy credibility checks, and the many resources at your disposal to win the war on fake news.
Handouts & Flyers:
- How to Spot Fake News – International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (PDF/ JPG – available in multiple languages)
- Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition – On The Media
- How to Identify Fake News in 10 Steps – ProQuest
- Fact or Fiction bookmark – ALA
Fact Checking Websites:
Identifying the Source:
- False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical “News” Sources – Huge list of news sources compiled by Dr. Melissa Zimdars, Assistant Professor at Merrimack College
- News sources chart – chart/graph created by Vanessa Otero (more information is available on her website)
- Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda – Harvard Library
- Fake News – Indiana University East Library
- Information Literacy & Fake News – Kentucky Virtual Library
- Savvy Info Consumers: Fake News – University of Washington Libraries
- How to Spot Fake News – FactCheck.org
- 5 Ways to Spot Fake News – Common Sense Media
- How to Choose Your News – TED-Ed
- Here’s How Fake News Works (and How the Internet Can Stop It) – Wired
Resources for Schools, Classrooms, & Educators:
- Always Interested Library & Info Center – Pequannock Township High School
- Classroom Curriculum – Common Sense Media
- Digital Resource Center (resources on teaching news literacy)
- Fake News – Pearltrees
- Lesson Plan: How to Teach Your Students About Fake News – PBS
- Lesson Plans – Common Sense Media
- News Literacy Project
- North Dakota State Library databases (reliable sources of information)
- The Sift newsletter – News Literacy Project
- Wineburg, Sam and McGrew, Sarah and Breakstone, Joel and Ortega, Teresa. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at: http://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934
- Factitious – a game that tests your news sense
- Fake News: CRAAP Test – Berkeley City College
- Five Browser Extensions for Reading Online News – Skokie Public Library
- TinEye: Reverse Image Search
- 10 Ways to Spot a Fake News Article – EasyBib
- Akpan, N. (2017). Everyone is too distracted to stop fake news, study shows. PBS Newshour. Retrieved from http://to.pbs.org/2sK1O5Y
- Alvarez, B. (2017). Public libraries in the age of fake news. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2iSOmcx
- Biersdorfer, J.D. (2017) Twitter bot – or not? New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/2qMshfs
- Davis, W. (2016). Fake or real? How to self-check the news and get the facts. NPR. Retrieved from http://n.pr/2hbEsl3
- Domonoske, C. (2016). Students have “dismaying” inability to tell fake news from real, study finds. NPR. Retrieved from http://n.pr/2ggms4o
- Lohr, S. (2018). It’s true: False news spreads faster and wilder. And humans are to blame. New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/2G7aWGI
- Solon, O. (2017). The future of fake news: Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2uW9IuY
- Tufekci, Z. (2018). YouTube, the great radicalizer. New York Times. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/2FxTePz
- Weissman, C.G. (2017). The question isn’t if Facebook can fix its problems – it’s how much it wants to. Fast Company. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2ga08zf