Living in the fake news era – how can we tell what is true or not?

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. 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. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.[…]

I think Trump is in the White House because of me. […]

Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it. And that feels [bad].” 

This is what Paul Horner told Washington Post, in November 2016. But who is he? Paul Horner has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years. But he’s most famous for distributing fake news during the 2016 American election.

Long before 2016, here is what Donald Trump said during an interview to People Magazine in 1998:

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific. “

 

Surprising or not, these affirmations uncover the terrible truth about the massive power and impact of the media. The whole “fake news” frenzy was mostly used in every context related to Donald Trump. But it didn’t stop there.

Today, you and I might use the “fake news” term for any news, information, or rumor that we believe it’s not true.

The question is: are we really living in a fake news era? Or have we gotten used to believing everything we read or hear? 

Do we verify the source of the news or consider the idea that someone might want to fool us?

If you no longer want to be outwitted by fake news, propaganda, misinformation (or however you want to call it), read below and you’ll find out:

  • Really understand what fake news is
  • See 5 real-life examples of fake news that changed the world
  • Figure out how and why fake news go viral
  • 7 ways to tell if a news is real or not
  • How social media magnified the fake news phenomena
  • The possibility of anti –fake news laws to be passed
  • How do you fight off fake news in the long(er) term

What exactly does fake news mean?

Fake news is a rather newly coined term, but the idea goes way back since…almost forever. In Ancient Times, Ramses the Great invented a story telling everyone that the Battle of Kadesh was a victory for the Egyptian people. In reality, the battle was a dead end with no clear outcome on who won. Now this could have the fake news stamp, right?

Defining fake news is not always simple. Cambridge dictionary determines fake news as: ​false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.

If you take the pop culture approach, urbandictionary, has different takes on “fake news” expression, from:

“False or otherwise extremely exaggerated news stories used to generate money from ad revenue by using clickbait titles or used to sell tabloid”, to “the only type of news that Mr. Trump loves.”

So fake news could be interpreted in different ways.

However, according to media experts, fake news could be classified as follows:

  • false information: news deliberately spread by journalists (they know only a part of the real story) to support political causes and make online traffic.
  • unknown false information: news journalists distribute without them knowing it is false information.
  • disinformation: the form fake news has taken today, which is deliberately spreading false information to achieve a certain goal (journalists know the entire real story but choose to tell a lie)

What fake news looks like. Take a look at these examples

Interest groups have used the internet and media outlets to spread a lot of fake news in the last years. Some are probably still fresh in your memory, but you may not have a clue about others.

The funny

1. Starbucks’ false Dreamer Day advertising

One example of a recent and sort of funny news that circulated on Twitter involved Starbucks.

Fake tweets advertised “Dreamer Day” and claimed Starbucks would offer free frappuccinos to all migrants living in America. Starbucks quickly reacted, apologized and said the advertiser was “completely false”.

2. Pope Francis to support Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy

This hoax was posted on a website that claimed to have used as primary source an appearance from an American TV station called “WTOE 5 News.” Only, there is no TV station by this name. The news that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy spread incredibly fast and created a huge splash on Facebook.

The ugly

3. Trump’s inauguration had the largest audience ever

This fake rumor was spread by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer. This was one of his first tasks: to convince everyone that Donald Trump was more popular, especially in comparison to former American president, Barack Obama. In reality, Trump’s crowd was only one-third the size of Obama’s.

The revolting

4. Fake news of missing children after the Manchester attack

A terrorist attack occurred in Manchester UK, right after Ariana Grande finished her concert. Due to an enormous media coverage and since a significant part of the spectators were children and teenagers, the social media was soon invaded with false alarms. Viral photos claimed to show missing children and teenagers during the concert. The pictures were in fact stolen and misused: they portrayed youngsters who were on different continents at the time of the attack.

Media changed, so here's your #fakenews survival kit Click to Tweet

5. Social media shows a comedian is guilty in the Florida shooting case

Earlier in 2018, the U.S. faces a news mass shooting episode, this time at a school in Parkland, Florida. The event was a good occasion for misinformation in the form of accusing the wrong person as the alleged shooter. Several tweets from a fake account circulated claiming that there were two shooters: Nikolas Cruz and Sam Hyde. Cruz was the actual shooter, but Hyde is a comedian who had no connection with the tragedy.

His picture was distributed during this tragedy as well as during similar ones such as the San Bernardino shooting.

How fake news go viral

Creators of fake news clearly grounded on the idea that people’s attention span today is less than 10 seconds.  That is why, according to many research studies, people not only tend to believe fake news, but they seem to spread faster than actual, real news. Again, social media has been playing a big part in this process.

The psychological effect of fake news

Dr Jens Binder, senior lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University reached an interesting conclusion; most of us unwillingly share fake news on social media, not to influence opinions, but simply for the sake of sharing.

If you think about it, even you’ve done it at least once. You shared some news on your timeline without verifying the accuracy of it. What happens next? Well, people are very emotional. Each time you read, whether it’s an article, a study or a book, your emotions play a big role on how you interpret a story. You form your opinion based on the vibes you get from reading something.

A psychological study from Nature Human Behavior reveals this exact fact: the human brain has its limits when it comes to assimilating new information. It doesn’t resort to logic to distinguish good from bad; instead, it chooses popularity over quality and reason.

How do emotions apply to political advertising?

Brian E. Weeks, a communications researcher at the University of Michigan made a study in 2015 analyzing how emotions influence the way people tackle fake news. He discovered that angry people are more likely to refer to their political beliefs when they evaluate misinformation. Anxious people accept views that contradict their political beliefs.

Then also comes the bias

Mainly, your mind formed certain habits; it got adjusted to responding the same way in similar situations. Your mind does the same thing when it comes to soaking up news and information.

These are some of the most common decision-making biases:

a)confirmation bias: The tendency to interpret and remember information in a way that confirms your own preconceptions.

b)courtesy bias: The tendency to give an opinion that is more socially correct rather than your honest opinion, just to avoid offending anyone.

c)stereotyping bias: Expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having concrete information about that individual.

Search engines shows bogus information before the real ones

Beyond the psychological effect, tech companies also give a hand in the escalation of false information. When everyone was searching for final U.S. election results in 2016, the website on the top of the list in Google was a fake blog “70news,” showing Trump had won both the popular vote and the Electoral College. The creator of the blog explained his main source were Twitter posts.

This sounds so incredible, but once you connect the dots along with the revelations of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal…sounds pretty legitimate.

Clickbait – a form of fake news?

Before social media and the spread of fake news, the internet was dominated by clickbait. It still is, but we tend to spot clickbait easier these days.

Behind the title of a clickbait, you discover exaggerations of news events, weird beauty or anti-ageing tricks, etc. Usually, the content has no connection with the title at all. A clickbait exploits a curiosity gap and it has done its job if it convinces you to actually click.

The purpose of clickbait is not entirely different from the one of fake news.

Why bother to distinguish fake news from the real ones?

First of all, since they have become a recurrent phenomenon, there is a risk of fake news becoming the norm. Next thing you know, all of us are lied to on a daily basis.

Do you enjoy being fooled? Maybe you accept it once or twice, but not all the time.

Apart from that, as stated from the examples above, fake news can have serious consequences.

     1. You don’t read news anyway?

Regardless of how much you stay away from news, somehow, you still find out what’s going on in the world. You see a headline somewhere or hear people around you talk about it. You end up forming an opinion based on the opinion of others. Sometimes, they may be right, but how would you know?

  1. Do you believe you can’t be fooled by fake news?

Ok, so you read the news, but you think it’s impossible for you to fall for a fake news or story. If you’re not obsessively questioning and verify everything you read, at one point, you can be easily fooled. Just think how you sometimes remember a rumor or an information you heard but you don’t recall the context at all. Pretty soon, you end up believing in that information and maybe even use it as an argument in a conversation.

According to several psychological studies, the simple repetition of a statement or reading an information multiple times increases the likelihood of people believing what they hear or read.

  1. You don’t have time to check if news is real or not?

Ok, fact checking requires a little time and effort but it’s for a good cause. Additionally, think of it as an investment in a valuable skill that each of us should possess. Do you want to continually end up believing something that is not true?

Identifying fake news is not complicated. Once you know what to follow and exercise a bit, you’ll soon spot a fake news from the headline.

7 ways to spot fake news (and report it)

1.      What is the news source?

The first thing you should check is who published the news.

You can trust media outlets that have a reputation of publishing real news, such as:

BBC, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

These are just a few of the trustworthy media companies. Famous news publications relate worldwide breaking news and important reports after they have thoroughly verified the sources of the news. They don’t simply fabricate stories for the sake of traffic.

2.      Who is the author of the article/news?

Sometimes, fake news articles are not signed by any author. This should be the first signal that tells you something is fishy. Other fake news is signed but you should see exactly by whom. Real and trustworthy journalists have a good reputation in terms of telling the truth and most have an extensive experience. So, you can do a quick check on the writer of the article or news and you’ll get an idea who you’re dealing with.

3.      Look at the publication date

Some news is not necessarily fake, but they distort the truth more or less. Journalists take a true story, add new details and link something that happened a long time ago to present events.

4.      Don’t confuse jokes or satires with fake news

Usually, pamphlets, parodies and similar content is labeled as such from the beginning of the article. You just have to pay attention to these details, so you don’t interpret things the wrong way.

Some articles are written in such a way that by the end of your reading, you tend to believe it’s a real fact even if in the beginning it seemed too ridiculous to be true.

Andy Borowitz, for instance, has a famous satirical news column, the Borowitz Report you can read in the New Yorker.

5.      Pay attention to fake domains and URLs

Sometimes, you can be easily tricked into believing you are reading a valuable, trustful source. Attention to details is always a nice skill to have (or to exercise in case you don’t have it). Some websites are a phony replica of an original one and they could be re-created so well that you won’t instantly realize it.

One example is http://abcnews.go.com/   as opposed to http://abcnews.com.co/.

Just as an exercise, check which one is fake!

6.      Don’t avoid reading the comments

Big and important stories attract a lot of internet traffic, which means many people are interested in reading them. But news and stories also have the effects of raising debates, so people would leave a lot of comments. You might not be a fan of reading comments, but they could actually give you a hint on whether a news is real or fake. If plenty of comments suggest that the news is fake or at least, misleading, you guessed it: it probably is!

7.     Do a little research work on article photos

Articles always have a picture attached that normally should reflect the highlight of the story. But creating a fake picture is easier than creating a fake article. So you can do a small investigation. Right click on the image and tell Google to search for it. You might discover that the image was used in the past as well to backup different stories. Elements in the image could be different or could be changed.

Check out these examples of misleading pictures.

Some of the fake news websites that are spread on social media are: 

  • 70news.wordpress.com 
  • Americannews.com 
  • Dailyheadlines.net 
  • Dcgazette.com 
  • Freedomdaily.com 
  • the-insider.co 
  • voxtribune.com 

Check the full list of fake news sites usually distributed on Facebook 

 

How the social media became the main place for fake news

When you hear fake news, you instantly think about social media. The influence and popularity of social media exploded in the last years, and it was partly because users started to get the news from these platforms. In a way, social media replaced online newspapers and overall, people’s reading habits and the way they search for information.

Jonathan Pollinger, social media specialist:

“Because of the way they work, these sites have left the field open as never before to the ideologically driven and financially incentivized to peddle fake news and for people to circulate it.”

Fake news can spread very fast, especially on social media. A solid proof of it is again, the latest Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. Along with fast spreading, fake news has an immense manipulation power.

How you can report and flag fake news

After you thoroughly checked and know for sure you’re dealing with fake news, it’s best that you do something about it. You can report fake news on any website and platform including Facebook.

Every time you search something on Google, at the bottom of the page, you’ll find the “Send feedback” icon. Click on it and you can include the link you are reporting, send a screenshot and also highlight parts of the news or article that you consider are the most fraudulent.

Tips on how to report fake news on the most popular websites and social platforms:

Facebook

1. Click on the “•••” button on the top right of this post.

2. Select Hide post. Once you choose that, the post vanishes from your screen directly, replaced with a brief message from where you can choose“Report post“.

3. Choose “Mark this post as false news”.

Twitter

1. Find the tweet you wish to report.

2. Click on the More icon on web, or the v icon on the app.

3. Select Report from the drop-down menu.

4. Choose an option that best describes the issue you have with the tweet.

5. Then, provide more info about the tweet and why you think it needs to be removed.

To report an account:

Go to the account you wish to report.

2. Click on the gear icon (web and iOS) or three dots icon (Android).

3. Select Report from the drop-down menu.

4. Choose an option that best describes the issue you have with the account.

5.  Provide more information on the reason for reporting the account.

Instagram

1. Head over to the Instagram post you wish to report.

2. Click on the three dots icon at the top-right of the post and click Report.

Google

1. Take a screenshot of the site or article and save it.

2. On the Google search results page, scroll down to the bottom of the screen and click Send Feedback.

3. A dialogue box appears where you can upload the screenshot and describe why you believe a site/article needs to be removed.

4. Click Send and you just have to wait for Google team do the rest.

Would you support an anti-fake news law?

It’s been centuries since libel suits have been used against those who intentionally spread false accusations about others.

Surely, you’ve heard about many cases of famous or not so famous people who sued magazines or publications for defamatory articles. However, it seems it’s not so easy to file a legal suit to publishers and purveyors of fake news.

Who to accuse: the creator of fake news, the ones who repeated and spread the news again and again or all of them?

Then, there are situations when fake news purveyors create or spread fake news that cause serious damages to people who live in a different country. Such an example is the one with Macedonian writers who created several pro-Trump websites. In this case, if the U.S. Supreme Court would want to file a suit against them, local laws don’t apply in Macedonia.

Furthermore, this kind of suits are by all means expensive and sometimes, people are afraid that filing a suit would draw more negative attention or publicity towards them, even if they could definitely win. This is what Shaina Jones Ward, member of the ABA’s Forum on Communications Law believes.

That is why, the European Commission plans to establish a “Code of Practice” that will force tech companies, online platforms and publishers to handle fake news properly. The EU initiative is based on creating basic rules that focus on “…transparency on political advertising and sponsored content”.

The draft policy of the document says that false information “can be used as leverage to influence and manipulate societal debates in Europe as well as policymaking”.

The code of practice will become official in July and should become effective by the end of 2018.

 

Organizations worldwide make efforts to fight fake news

Journalists, media outlets and several organizations have realized now, more than ever, that they need to do something to combat fake news and misinformation.

Journalism Trust Initiative

One of the most recent endeavors is a partnership called Journalism Trust Initiative that was just brought forward in April, 2018. This partnership is formed of Reporters without Borders (RSF), Agence France Presse (AFP), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Global Editors Network (GEN), with a clear mission to fight misinformation. Their plan is to introduce transparency standards and ethical journalistic methods among other important elements.

European approaches on fighting fake news

In Spain, the problem of fake news has been tackled in a political sense. The socialist party (PSOE) wants to expand a local bill related to private data protection that would stop the spread of fake news on social media platforms.

In France, citizens suggested the idea of assigning an independent authority on false news. Additionally, the French president proposed the implementation of a fake news law, specifically targeted at social media platforms.

In its annual plan, BBC has set a list of priorities, among them training UK public schools staff and students how to pinpoint and avoid fake news and information.

 Poynter Institute launched International Fact-Checking Day on April 2nd, 2017 to raise awareness on fake news. Poynter’s idea was to bring together and support fact-checkers worldwide, share ideas and bring their efforts to help out readers verify validity of stories better.

Why we need to educate everyone how to classify fake news

Fake news has proven to have a huge power in influencing and manipulating people’s decisions. That is a concerning fact. So, we not only need to educate ourselves, but we need to educate everyone around us, especially the young ones.

Education specialists believe training students how to pinpoint fake news as well as fake websites should be a priority. In the U.S., many education programs that have set this exact same goal have already been launched.

Donald Barclay (Deputy University Librarian at University of California):

“First of all, fake news is nothing new. In such forms as propaganda, fake news has been around for thousands of years and probably pre-dates writing. What is new in the digital age are the following:

1. The extremely low cost of creating and widely distributing digital information.

2. The wide availability tools for creating fake information, including software for manipulating text, images, and sound.

3. The sheer amount of information—including fake news—that the average person must negotiate in the digital age.”

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England:

“Children need the skills to prepare them for the digital world they inhabit which includes digital citizenship classes in schools. We also need to see responsible behavior from the digital industry.”

As a general rule, students should be very careful when reading articles that have these phrases in headlines:

  • “you won’t believe what happens next”
  • “does not want you to know”
  • “will make you cry”
  • “see before you die”

Students should also question a website that seems to be too funny, too positive, too terrifying or too exploitive.

Conclusions – will we ever say good bye to fake news? 

Some sources suggest that the future of fake news will look so real that not even an expert eye could differentiate real from fake. Take a look at this video that was created using a combination of old and new technology: Adobe After Effects and the AI face-swapping tool FakeApp.

Tim Berners Lee, the founder of the world wide web, has expressed his concern related to false news and misinformation. In an open letter, he mentions the online world desperately needs a solution.

“It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web”

“Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding”

What does the future hold for us when it comes to fake news? Here are some opinions:

Tom Rosenstiel, author, director of the American Press Institute:

“Whatever changes platform companies make, and whatever innovations fact checkers and other journalists put in place, those who want to deceive will adapt to them. Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to.”

Irene Wu, culture and technology professor at Georgetown University:

“Information will improve because people will learn better how to deal with masses of digital information. Right now, many people naively believe what they read on social media. When the television became popular, people also believed everything on TV was true. It’s how people choose to react and access to information and news that’s important, not the mechanisms that distribute them.”

Will we ever get rid of fake news? If we’re lucky, these types of news and information will go away. But until then, identifying fake news from the real news is an essential skill anyone should have.

 

About the author

Dana Vioreanu
Dana Vioreanu

Even though her degree is in Sociology, which technically has nothing to do with writing, all her previous jobs implied working for websites, taking care of content and writing articles.
By the way, if you’re interested in studying abroad, feel free to ask her a few pointers, because for about two years and a half, she learned almost everything there is to know about international studies.

2 Comments

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  • I think you forgot to take in account what are the references we are using to judge if the new is good or fake. If I take this assertion: Trump is the best US President in this century!

    For some people, this new is true, because they have in mind a GDP of 4.0% and 3.4 millions Americans found a job.

    For others this new is fake because they cannot use a corrupted administration anymore to make them richer.

    Both are right however, the news goes from “Good” to “Fake” state.

    My conclusion is no one is able to solve the fake news problem. Only liberty, access to any information and free speech can help to distinguish one from the other. If media suck, just bypass them by reading original reports.

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