Fake news is everyone’s problem

It’s heartwarming that everyone is paying attention to fake news at last. The brutal result of the election has jolted people into awareness, suddenly noticing a host of awful things around us which were really always there.

But fake news is nothing new. Remember the National Enquirer? It’s still going strong (internationally), showing its face at your local supermarket, ready to give you a compelling story about a boy who has a tree growing out of his mouth (not kidding, an actual example from the early 90s, I still remember the accompanying photo).

In the last week, all the news outlets have been talking about fake news simultaneously (BBCVoxBuzzfeedLA Times, Huffington Post). And that’s half the problem. Social media dictates that when one provider has a story, all others must follow. Like beacons on top of mountain peaks…once the first one has been lit, the others must follow quickly. And sometimes there is such a rush to light that beacon, that nobody’s looking what they’re setting fire to.

A year ago I gave a TEDx talk on the importance of verifying Facebook and Twitter posts before sharing. After the talk I was approached by many people who expressed their frustration at constantly seeing fabricated information online. This gave me hope, it made me think people were waking up to it and taking responsibility for their sharing.

But I was wrong. Things are getting worst. And while Facebook and Twitter can take some of the blame, the ultimate responsibility lies in the reader/sharer.

Responsible sharing is easy. Follow two simple rules:

  1. Is the source familiar to you or reputable? If not, verify (more on this below).

  2. If in doubt of a story’s veracity, don’t share. Stop the misinformation in its tracks.

We all have to be a lot more sceptical of what we read online. Use the “too good to be true” notion. Is the story too salacious (Denzel Washington chooses to vote for Trump)? Is it too perfect (Donald Trump’s “dumbest group of voters” quote)? Question timings and motivations.

Stop and take a moment

Have you ever shared an article without reading it? I hate to admit I have. Terrible habit, but it’s so easy to do when even reputable sources are using click-bait headlines. You share the article because you assume the content will reflect the headline, but most of the time you will find that although the title is technically correct, it is a deep extrapolation of the article’s actual content. This is terrible practice by news outlets, but we can also help this by reading the article we are about to share to our followers.

What is the source?

Before opening a shared link, you can easily see the URL of the source. Have you heard of it before? Do some keywords give it away as being extreme (freepatriotpost, americanpoliticnews, usanewsworld, donaltrumpnews, supremepatriot — all real examples)? It is likely these sites will not be run by professional journalists, but by people with extreme opinions and little regard for truth or balance. Verify or move on.

How can I verify?

This depends on the story. Denzel Washington voting for Trump is an interesting one. I came across this story after it was debunked, but hypothetically I would have checked if he has a blog (he doesn’t) or official twitter account (nope) on which he would have either declared his new allegiance or denied the reports. I would have then tried his agents, both website and Twitter, as they would be keen to also deny reports, perhaps releasing a statement (they didn’t). Ultimately, this is hard to verify and one that must be judged on a balance of probabilities and therefore best not shared.

Trump’s quote to People Magazine isn’t an easy one to verify, either. People Magazine does not have its archive online, although you can buy back issuesup to 2006. The next step would be to search for the image (reverse image search in Google) or the text and see when it starts existing online. Does it coincide with heated periods of the election? Is the timing a little too perfect? Moot point, however, as this was debunked by Snopes (an excellent resource) as far back as May, 2015.

Resources

Debunking and verifying can be time-consuming, but also fun. Sometimes it can take a minute or two, but if you’re going around in circles trying to verify something or you haven’t got time, check to see if any of these sources have done the work already:

According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who has recently published a book on this topic, the incidence of misinformation and false news is so high because people have “hard time letting go of past beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or scientific proof”.

Gossip, lies and fake news have existed since mankind could communicate, so don’t expect any of it to go away any time soon. The power to stop misinformation is in your hands. If everyone does their duty to share facts, then social media will become a risk-free source of information.

Apparently, the top performing fake news stories on Facebook were more successful that the top stories from major news outlets during the US election. We can’t let this happen again.

Go forth and verify.

UPDATE: just this morning (November 18, 2016) I embarrassingly fell victim to fake news. It was reported that at demonstration in front Trump Tower in NYC, a protester held a sign that read “Rape Melania”. Thankfully, for so many reasons, this was later debunked by Snopes. It did not, however, stop #RapeMelania from trending.

 

(Article also published on Medium.)