There is nothing more cynical than fake news. The entire concept is to play readers for suckers, manipulating the foundation of reality in exchange for cash or furthering of what is likely a heinous agenda.
And the people hosting and spreading fake news online — the epicenter of the flood of misinformation — are frustratingly good at what they do. Fake news companies are so good at mimicking the look and sound of trustworthy news organizations that with a cursory glance, or a quick read, it’s difficult to tell the two apart.
We know this because, increasingly, people are showing that they are unable to distinguish news written by a legacy newspaper and a Breitbart miasma of delusion shat into paragraph form.
A little more than 80 percent of middle school students can’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story online, according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students in grades middle school through college. Researchers also found that more than two out of three middle schoolers couldn’t see a reason to mistrust a post written by a bank executive arguing that young adults need more financial planning help. And nearly four in 10 high school students believed, based on the headline, that a photo of deformed daisies on a photo-sharing site provided strong evidence of toxic conditions near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. This is despite the photo containing no source or location information.
People need to be more educated in media literacy, a skill in which people apply keen critical thinking to the media they are consuming, questioning the intent, veracity and efficacy of the things they read and watch. It’s unclear how much media literacy is being taught in schools, but positive results, it seems, are not forthcoming.
Media literacy is critical for an informed and awake society. President-elect Donald Trump is not going to help citizens become more knowledgeable. The man’s underlings have been working overtime to convince Americans that facts don’t exist and, therefore, no one should ever take Trump seriously about anything. Ever. Also, anyone who says differently — especially if she’s a dedicated truth-teller, like a teacher, artist, journalist, or scientist — is a liar.
“People that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts,” said Scottie Nell Hughes, an editor at rightalerts, and Trump fan boy, during an interview last week on The Diane Rehm Show. “Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately anymore, of facts.”
If you’re stepping in this mound of bullshit and can’t smell it, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
Yes, the same set of facts can be used to support multiple and sometimes opposite opinions. But facts must be grounded in real events, actions, people, places, things, and outcomes — that’s the textbook definition of “fact.” Accounts that seek to present false events, actions, people, places, things, and outcomes are lies and/or errors. Everything else is opinion.
Facts are like climate change; let that one sink in. As a journalist, facts are my life and I’ve discovered some ways over the years to quickly tell whether I’m dealing with a decent resource or something untrustworthy. In an effort to promote media literacy, here’s my little guide to detecting bullshit stories on the fly:
The article is written by a news organization or website you’ve never heard of.
The article is written by a news organization or website that sort of kind of sounds familiar. For instance, the website Politicalo is bursting with sensationalist fake news, but it sounds an awful lot like Politico, which is a steadfast news organization with a reputation for accuracy. So, read that URL carefully.
Something is written in ALL CAPS.
If the article is reporting major news, like “Trump Will Force Muslims to Register Via Twitter” (one of the many BS stories on Politicalo as of writing this), and the AP or Reuters isn’t reporting on it, as well, it’s probably fake news.
The article doesn’t cite any sources. And if it does have links to resources, those links lead to ads or similarly sketchy information.
The article is unbalanced. If the story is obsessed with “liberals” and “conservatives,” the writer is likely more concerned with spreading an agenda than the truth.
The article contains “I” statements by the author, which news stories rarely contain.
You see a blizzard of pop-up and flashing banner ads on the site .
The photo on the article does not match the story’s content. Do a reverse Google search on any image online by right clicking on the photo and selecting the reverse search. Google will then show you all the other places and contexts the photo has been used.
There is no byline or the byline is an alias. People who speak the truth aren’t afraid to stand behind it.
Did the headline make your blood boil? It’s meant to do that so you’ll forward the article without reading it first.
If you’re not sure whether the article you’re looking at is a real news story or a fake one, don’t read it. Be mindful of what you put in your head because it may come out through your words and deeds.
Got more tips on how to tell fake news from real? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.