Well, it’s finally happened. America is being forced to face up to the fact that the Internet is rife with fake news designed to incite our anger and divide us. After years of being blasted on social media with a never-ending slew of misleading memes, downright fraudulent articles and Photoshopped images, we’re now seeing article after article that decries the fake news factory that’s left America unsure who to trust.
A column I wrote for this newspaper in the summer of 2012 warned people who say they don’t need newspapers because they have Facebook were in for a rude awakening. I wish I could take a bit of delight in being proven right, but there’s little to be found in an America as divided as the one we’re living in right now. It’s harder still to be dancing a jig when you find yourself arguing with people you care about because they’ve shared blatantly false information, and become an unwitting victim in yet another internet scam.
Fake news has divided a country, and it’s dividing friendships and families.
I don’t know how to fix them. But as someone who’s worked in traditional media for 18 years, digital media for eight, I do know how to avoid becoming another member of the scam factory:
- If the headline warns you that the content is something the mainstream media doesn’t want you to see, it’s fake. I’ve worked in journalism for more than half of my life. There is NOTHING the media doesn’t want you to see. In fact, our whole job is to get information out to the public and our livelihoods depend on doing it before the other guy does, so you’ll keep buying our newspaper/reading our website/watching our station. If you can’t find it on so-called “mainstream” sites, it’s because there was no basis to the story.
- If you read the headline, but you didn’t read the article, don’t share it. Often headlines on misleading or fake articles aren’t supported by the story laid out beneath them. Reading the article in its entirety is a vital first step to weeding out blatant lies, and yet one study by Columbia University researchers showed that 59 percent of Twitter users never even read the link they retweet.
- If an article is written as an opinion piece, take its facts with a grain of salt. Opinion pieces may contain facts, but the purpose of the article is entirely different from that of a straight news report. Know that the writer is trying to sway your opinion, and decide if the facts presented are worth making the leap with them. Speaking of …
- If the article doesn’t provide sources for its information, it’s probably fake. Reported articles should feature interviews with primary sources or hyperlinks to other stories on the Internet that back up the claims being made. Authors may also serve as experts if they have a certain expertise, which should be made clear in the piece — as I’ve done by sharing my journalism credentials in reference to this list — or in the author’s bio.
- Google everything, but beware your sources. If something is only being “reported” by sites with similar agendas and lacking the aforementioned quality sources, it’s probably fake. But even valid news stories can be so old that they’re no longer credible or relevant. For example, Amber alerts are often shared on social media months or even years after the child’s disappearance has been solved by police. While this may seem harmless, calls made by someone who “thinks” they saw a child who’s long-since been returned to parents can tie up emergency lines and hamper current police work.
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