“NYC Coroner who declared the death of Jeffrey Epstein a suicide made half a million dollars a year working for the Clinton foundation until 2015.”
“Democrats vote to enhance med care for illegals now, vote down veterans waiting 10 years for the same service.”
“Tim Allen was quoted saying ‘Trump’s wall costs less than the Obamacare website.’”
“Trump’s grandfather was a pimp and tax evader; his father a member of the KKK.”
Out of those four headlines, which are “fake news?”
The answer? All of them.
If these headlines seem familiar, there’s a reason. According to Avaaz, a nonprofit that studied the most shared fake news stories of 2019 on Facebook, these headlines were among the top 10 shared by Facebook users. The top 100 fake news stories were viewed over 150 million times on Facebook – enough to reach every registered voter at least once, according to the study.
This becomes especially concerning when taking into account 62% of adults get their news from social networking sites, according to a different study by Pew Research Center conducted in 2016. This is opposed to 2012, when only 49% of adults reported getting their news from social media in a slightly different study. When broken down further, the study found 70% of Reddit users, 66% of Facebook users and 59% of Twitter users get their news from those platforms.
College students are a particularly vulnerable group of users. In 2020, a Pew Research study found those who get their news from social media are most likely to be under 30. In another study, Northeastern University found in 2018 that nearly half of 6,000 American college students surveyed reported they lacked confidence in their ability to discern fake news from real news on social media. Of the same group of students, 38% stated this threat of fake news made them trust all media less. 68% said that they found the sheer amount of daily news overwhelming.
Similarly, in their own study, Stanford University found in 2016 that students ranging from high school to college were consistently unable to determine the credibility of an online news source out of 7,800 student responses gathered from 12 states.
With the abundance of political ads and opinionated posts filling student’s social media news feeds, how is it possible to navigate this minefield of fake news in various online media outlets? Orange Coast College professors and media experts across the country have joined the conversation to help students learn how to not only spot fake news on their feed, but help fight it.
It’s important to understand first: what is fake news?
The term “fake news” was thrust into the spotlight during the 2016 debate, though the actual origin of this term can be traced to much earlier origins. As far back as 1755 when the Catholic Church put out a false explanation for the Lisbon earthquake, causing famed-philosopher Voltaire to speak out against religious domination, fake news has been used as a tool for various political motives. In the 1930’s, the Nazis notoriously used the phrase “Lugenpresse,” translated to “fake press” to undermine public support of the mainstream media.
The phrase became reborn when both Clinton and Trump used “fake news” in Oct. 2017 , though Trump would go on to embrace the term as his own. Trump’s use of the term has mainly been used to discredit and create mistrust of journalists, particularly left-wing writers and news stations such as CNN. Some organizations, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have warned this treatment of American journalists has destroyed the credibility of the press, “dangerously” undermined the truth and endangered the lives of journalists across the globe.
In 2017, Michigan State University researchers defined “fake news” as news articles that are verifiably and intentionally false to mislead readers. Fake news falls into one of two categories, misinformation or disinformation. Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is spread unintentionally. This is what occurs when a social media user unknowingly shares a fake news story with their friends before checking the accuracy of the story. Disinformation is shared with the intention to mislead. Bots have played a big role in disinformation campaigns since the 2016 election season.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, out of all tweets linked to public websites, 66% are shared by accounts with characteristics typical of automated bots, not human users. Suspected bots shared 41% of links to sites shared primarily by liberals, and 44% of links to sites shared by conservatives. 56% to 66% of links to news and current event sites are primarily shared by mixed ideology or centrist human audiences.
In the same vein, a University of Michigan study found in their 2017 study that the purveyors of bots do not usually seek a specific outcome, but rather seek to sow chaos, confusion and paranoia to disrupt American institutions, such as voting.
Those purveyors seem to be succeeding: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said himself that 126 million Facebook users were shown Russian-backed, politically-orientated fake news stories during the 2018 election. During the 2016 election, the 20 most popular fake news stories received more shares, reactions and comments (8.7 million engagements) than the 20 most popular real news stories (7.3 million engagements).
This continues into the 2020 election. National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina warned that “foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process,” in an August 2020 press release.
Facebook has partnered with third-party fact checker companies independently verified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. Users can report suspicious content and investigated news found to be false is ranked lower in the newsfeed, resulting in 80% less viewership. They have also invested in media literacy and implementing other products that give users more information about the articles they see.
In September 2020, Twitter made a drastic change in their policies regarding fake tweets, deciding to begin either removing or labeling tweets false that: spread incorrect or misleading information about the laws and regulation of a civic process, or the officials or institutes that execute civic processes; disputed claims that undermine faith in the civic process, such as unverified claims about election rigging or vote tampering; and making misleading claims about the result or outcome of a civic process, such as claiming victory in the upcoming election before all the results are actually available.
Despite the efforts of these companies, some users question the long-term impacts of allowing private companies to censor what information and news their wide-reaching audience can see. The primary responsibility of verifying the truth of what a user reads or shares on social media continues to ultimately fall on themself. Users now have the power to spread information to millions of people with a click of a button, and as famously quoted in the Spiderman comics, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Jennifer Peters, professor of public relations, interpersonal communications and social media strategies for 22 years at Orange Coast College, said “it takes eight seconds to spread a rumor, or three weeks to correct that [rumor].”
According to Peters, this is “quicker than any other channel in history.” She encourages students to “consider our role as super-spreaders” and “to respect the power of a message.”
Ben Lohman, professor of media literacy at OCC, agrees.
“I think it's useful for students to realize that they matter. Whether you have thousands of followers or just a handful, each of us has an impact on the people in our lives,” Lohman said. “It's never too soon to start thinking about our responsibility to the people in our circles.”
With all this, how can social media users protect themselves and identify what articles are fake news when encountering headlines on their social media feed? What exactly is the “great responsibility” of a consumer of media? Lohman points out that asking that question is like asking a food safety expert how to safely eat a piece of food on the ground.
“When we find food on the ground, what are ways we can determine if it's safe?" Lohman said. “And that's a reasonable question: some of the food we find on the ground is probably edible, and some of it isn't, but...maybe we could take a step back and evaluate whether the ground is the best place to be looking for food.”
Lohman suggests instead students consider getting a subscription to a couple of high-quality newspapers, or subscribing to receive daily headlines from trusted news outlets, preferably both local and national.
Acknowledging that many students and adults do consume news on social media, and students may find it hard to get newspaper subscriptions, Lohman says “when we encounter a headline or claim, it's useful to go through a simple process. The first is to figure out what the source of the information is.”
Peters advises that when first encountering an outrageous headline on social media like those listed at the top of this article, which may use the names of famous people to spike interest and garner responses from readers, that it’s important for students to “see the caption, think about what’s in that article, and not emotionally react.”
Jennifer Frank, professor of writing for social media at OCC, explained how to find the sources of information seen online.
“Credible sources are sometimes hard to find if you don’t want to rely on mainstream media,” Frank said. “[Students] have to invest a little time. Trace information back to its original source. If information is reposted, see where it started. Copy and paste the headline into google and see what comes up.”
“Be willing to take the time to see who posts it,” Frank said.
After establishing who the source is, Lehman said “to figure out how they know that their information is correct. Is it someone with firsthand knowledge? Is it from a person who does original reporting? Or is it repackaged information on a listicle?
It’s also important for students to find if there are any supporting articles to back the claim being made online, or if they can verify that news from other sources.
“Look at as many sources as possible,” Frank said. “Most of us on social media don’t want to give the time to go digging, but it really is the only way.
After finding corroborating articles, it’s an important step to repeat the process of verifying the sources of the newly found articles. Sometimes, this process may need to be repeated a few times until the original source can be traced back to the beginning by the reader.
“When you're double-checking information, look for an unrelated source. See if the information is corroborated. If there's still a chance that your source is wrong, repeat the process,” Lohman said. “This might sound like a lot of effort. Sometimes it can be.”
Lehman points out that sometimes it’s important to gauge how important or relevant a piece of information may even be before going down this rabbit hole.
“If someone posts an article that says that the hottest colors this fall are teal and burnt orange, the worst case scenario is that you might buy an outfit that doesn't look trendy. But if someone posts an article that says you can cure a headache by eating turpentine, the worst case scenario is that you could get sick or die, “ Lehman said. “So a claim like that should be thoroughly explored, and verified from expert sources, before you take any action.”
Also be sure to check the date of news articles. Sometimes older articles are reposted and widely circulated, but they aren’t necessarily relevant to current events.
This ultimate cheatsheet for critical thinking developed by the Global Digital Citizen Foundation can further assist students with what questions to ask when analyzing information or news encountered online.
To stop the spread of fake news on social media, OCC students can simply stop sharing news that hasn’t been verified to be true, and use the reporting systems offered on each site to flag suspected fake news.
“You've probably seen people repost or retweet something and say, ‘I'm not sure if this is accurate’ or ‘HUGE IF TRUE!!!’” Lohman said. “But of course we don't have to share things when we aren't certain of their accuracy.”
To prevent echo chambers from developing and stay open-minded, Peters said to “100% look at both sides of the spectrum, then you’re not narrow-minded. Without knowing both sides, you can’t come up with your own perspective.”
Frank agrees with this, telling students to “consider sources that are opposite of what you think… try to understand what people on the other side of the issue think.
PolitEcho can show students any political bias of their Facebook friends and newsfeed, as well as provide explanations of its rating
Peters also recommends for students to ask certain questions about the media companies: “Ask about the media production. Ask where their values lie. Ask about money, ownership, and motive. How do these factors influence the content being produced?”
Though the political landscape on social media may seem difficult to navigate, if students are willing to be open-minded, put time into research and be conscious media consumers, it can also be beneficial, Peters points out. Social media is potentially a great place to have conversations for what needs to be talked about, inspire movements and engage in discussions with people of differing opinions to gain a new perspective of the world
“Be active, don’t be passive in an election year,” Frank said. “If you don’t know, ask. Social media is a great way to pose questions. There’s so much opportunity to make change, or support the status quo. Whatever you do, don’t sit on your butt!”