One of the biggest stories of 2016, if it could be believed, was the emergence of a frightening trend in the news: the propagation of fake news. Internet hoaxes are nothing new, with virus-laden e-mails from foreign princes gone broke, scam charities soliciting donations, and other nefarious purposes. The celebrity death hoax has long been a persisting issue on social media.
Fake news is nothing new, with various governments using it as propaganda throughout the years. What is new, is how far and fast the non-news is spread via social media channels. It’s estimated that at least 62% of all Americans get some piece of their news from social media. It has become such an issue that ‘fake news’ has its own Wikipedia entry and archive on the web site Snopes. Snopes, the web site that debunks hoaxes and scams, boasts an archive of over 300 items along with a fact check for each.
With all of the ugliness surrounding the 2016 presidential election, tensions ran high between supporters, especially those of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Twitter posts, Instagram photos, and Facebook shares were rampant, each rallying supporters to their candidate’s cause. Rumors of wrongdoings, shady deals, cover-ups fueled debates and arguments throughout the country. The fervor over the election and its results continues to propagate across all platforms, leading to much speculation that the viral onslaught of words actually swayed the election.
The election lead-up mudslinging is just one example of how fast news can spread via social media, stirring up emotions and opinions. In some cases, this ‘wild fire’ approach can be dangerous. In early December, 28-year-old Edgar Madison Welch of North Carolina went to Washington DC to investigate an online conspiracy theory. The start of the hoax, which took root shortly before Election Day, leveled charges that Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were involved in a child sex operation. Armed with an assault rifle, Welch walked into the Comet Ping Pong restaurant and pointed his weapon at an employee.
When he was arrested, Welch said he was investigating ‘Pizza Gate,’ a fake conspiracy that claimed the restaurant and its owner were involved in a child sex operation. James Alefantis, Comet Ping Pong’s owner, has denied the accusations even as the claims continue online. The owner and his employees say they have been repeatedly threatened on social media. In the case of Welch and the Comet Ping Pong restaurant, no one was harmed. However, it’s not to say that something more than reputations will be hurt in future releases.
Some news is obviously fake, particularly from The Onion, which has provided satirical commentary since 1988 in print and on its web site. Newslo, a newer fake news web site, touts itself as “the first hybrid news/satire platform on the web.” Major media outlets such as CNN and the Washington Post have been taken by hoaxes and fake news stories, having to print apologies, notes from the editor and flat out retractions.
Facebook and Google announced in November steps that they would be taking to help crack down on fake news. Facebook has always had a policy in place that banned misleading advertisements but has clarified recently that fake news sites don’t meet its publishing criteria, therefore giving more credence to traditional news outlets. Just before the holidays, Facebook announced that it would be partnering with FactCheck.org, along with PolitiFact, ABC News, and the Associated Press and Snopes.com.
“We’ll use the reports from our community, along with other signals, to send stories to these organizations,” Facebook said in its announcement. “If the fact checking organizations identify a story as fake, it will get flagged as disputed and there will be a link to the corresponding article explaining why. Stories that have been disputed may also appear lower in News Feed.”
Google has in the works a policy that will work to ensure advertising from fake news sources will be restricted on its servers. This comes after Google faced criticism when its top results for “final election count” was from a fake source and the top result in its “In the News” section was a WordPress blog called 70 News.
Though fake news has become more the norm than reputable news, there are ways to avoid falling victim to a falsehood and sharing it. First: double check before you share a news item, especially if it seems like it’s too good to be true. Trump became a prime example of why fact checking is important when he took to Twitter to denounce Facebook, Google, and his own preferred media medium of “burying the FBI criminal investigation of Clinton.” He fired off the missive without proof of something that could easily be disproved. Nonetheless, it was his most popular Tweet of the day, re-Tweeted by an estimated 25,000 while another 50,000 liked it, which helped it to spread.
A second tip is to avoid new or unproven web sites that carry with them ads that pay dividends for each view of the page. The more you share, the more others share, the more readers that see and the more money the company makes. A BuzzFeed study found that the less truthful news content was, the more likely it was to be shared. Stick to the old guard of news reporting, which does have a better track record of providing reliable news.
Alex Howard of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that works to “make government and politics more accountable and transparent,” Tweeted the following tips on how to avoid fake news: search the source link on Twitter, Google it, check Snopes, consider the record of the source providing the news.