There’s a reason why Dictonary.com named “misinformation” last year’s Word of the Year. It’s because there’s been a dramatic influx of misinformation. Misinformation is defined as, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead” (Dictionary.com).
The internet is riddled with misinformation. Whether it be a lone individual, Russian shills or bots, political operatives, or politicians themselves: misinformation is everywhere. And with social media, a fake story –pushing the right buttons with the right audience– can quickly go viral.
The 2016 presidential election brought the term “fake news,” a form of misinformation, into the public’s consciousness. Donald Trump began calling any critical story about his campaign or himself, “fake news.” The audacity and irresponsibility of Trump dropping “fake news” into the American lexicon has served no one but himself. It distracts and misdirects the public’s understanding since he labels any critical story as “fake news,” which in and of itself, is fake news.
Strategies for spotting and avoiding fake news
Here are some simple strategies for detecting and avoiding misinformation:
- Always get your news from trusted sources
There are many well-established news organizations that serve the public by providing fact-based information. The following news organizations are examples of trusted sources: The Associated Press (AP), PBS, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC, Reuters, USA Today, among others.
- Get your news from more than one source
The best way to consume a news story is to read the story from more than one source. See how different news organizations are framing a story. Using multiple sources is the best way to feel confident that the story you are reading has been effectively investigated, analyzed, and vetted.
- Understand the difference between news and opinion
In the news media world, there’s news and there’s opinion. The news is objective and based solely on the facts. Opinion pieces are subjective, but base their opinions on the facts.
- Use fact-checking websites to discern fact from fiction
These sites are dedicated to taking a story and vetting it for factual information. If Donald Trump makes some kind of radical or ridiculous claim, you’re more than likely to find a fact-based analysis of the claim on these sites. They give you a full breakdown of the validity of the claim. They’ll provide you with an analysis of the statement, usually with a truth-scoring system (e.g. true, mostly true, mixed, mostly false, false). Some examples of fact-checking sites are: PolitiFact.com, Snopes.com, and FactCheck.org.
- Be very wary of information on social media
This truth is under assault on social media more than any other place on the internet. You may see a news story on social media with a lot of likes or shares, which may lead some to assume the story is safe. This isn’t always the case. In fact, more often than not, people only read the headlines and like and/or share the story based on how it makes them feel. So, they’re sharing a story without ever reading it for themselves.
Twitter is generally a safer place to consume news since news organizations have their own verified accounts and promote their articles on the platform. Facebook, however, is a much darker place for getting solid information. This is why Facebook was a ripe target for Russia’s cyber attack during the 2016 presidential election, which was uncovered by journalists, American intelligence agencies, and the Mueller Report.
- If you see a meme or inforgraph from an unknown source, it’s best to disregard it.
Social media is flooded with memes and infographs based on shaky facts if not outright lies. These “picture stories” are usually created in hybrid form of a meme and infograph. Unfortunately, it’s how a lot of social media users become misinformed on these platforms. The problem is compounded by the sharing feature: someone sees a provocative or sensational picture story, then shares it to all of their friends or followers, turning the victim of misinformation into a disseminator of misinformation.
- Pay attention to the details
If you’re accessing a story from somewhere other than a news organization’s website (e.g. social media, text message, email, etc.), always check the URL. Make sure it’s not a cloned version of a website. If the URL says “.co” instead of “.com”, assume it’s suspect. If something feels off about the website, don’t take the risk. You could always verify the story is coming from a legitimate source by going to the organization’s website on your own.
Fake news is not a trend. It’s something we’ll all be dealing with for the rest of our lives. The genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back in. It’s possible to suppress fake news, but it’ll never be eradicated.
The United States House introduced legislation to deploy strategies for combating fake news (e.g. House Resolution 284), but the Republican-controlled Senate hasn’t cooperated with the resolution’s authors and it’s unlikely to introduce it to the Senate.
Without any regulation, we’re on our own. It’s therefore the responsibility of the news consumer to be aware of fake news on the internet. If there’s anything worse than ignorance, it’s misinformation. Not knowing a thing is better than being misled. Since fake news is the new normal, citizens must do their due diligence when consuming information. We all must be our own gatekeepers of information.