Some Questions and Answers About Fake News

Just two weeks ago, Donald Trump claimed that former president Barack Obama had his Trump Tower wiretapped during his campaign.

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Trump Tweets about Obama Wiretap (Image from LegalInsurrection.com)

Although to date, Trump has provided no evidence to support his claim.  It is thought that the story about the wiretapping originated with the Breitbart website.  And although the story is on Breitbart, no credible evidence is available on their site to back up their claim.  Just another incident of the spread of fake news.  To many of us, fake news is a relatively new phenomenon and we quite do not understand it.  Here are some basic questions and answers about fake news that should provide you with a foundation for understanding and navigating through the fake news fuss.

 

Q: Just what is “Fake News”?

A: The simplest and most obvious definition of fake news is the one taken at face value: news that is actually false news. An item produced to look and sound like credible news but containing bogus information.

Oddly enough, a dictionary definition for “fake news” isn’t too terribly common or easy to find.  Four of the more credible dictionary websites, OxfordDictionaries.com, Meriam-Webster.com, AHDictionary.com (American Heritage), and Dictionary.com offer no definition of the term whatsoever, although the Oxford website sites “Post Truth,” a term and concept with a connection to fake news, as its word of the year.   (See Question 3, “What is fake news’ role in and connection to the ‘Post-Truth’ world?” below)

Of those other dictionary websites that did provide a definition of fake news, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary had it listed as its word of the year.  Other sites, such as CollinsDictionary.com, and the even less reliable, crowdsourced MacMillianDictionary.com, along with Macquarie site, offer similar definitions of the term, basically defining fake news as sensationalized falsehoods propagated as credible news to discredit an individual or draw attention to a site (“click bait”).

 

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Three Types of News (Image from ByrdNick.com)

Interestingly, a contributor for UrbanDictionary.com, another user-sourced, crowd-rated dictionary site, suggests that the definition of fake news has evolved from its original meaning.  DisillusionedPolitico, the contributor, describes the former meaning in terms similar to the definition offered above, and further proposes that the definition has now changed to being a label applied to anything that does not support one’s narrative or views.

 

The most accepted definition of fake news is the simple obvious one: falsehoods presented as credible news for purpose of manipulating the viewer to the benefit of the fake news creator.  The definition can now be expanded to include being a label applied to anything the user feels is in opposition to his/her views.

Q: How can fake news be recognized?

A: A recent Stanford University study found that a large number of “digital natives,” middle and high school aged children, have trouble differentiating legitimate news articles from advertisements, click bait and fake news. Clever advertisers, website promoters, and politicized individuals have employed professional looking graphics and text to dupe unsuspecting web surfers.

In an effort to assist its reader in recognizes manipulative web material , NPR’s “All Tech Consider” section writes that a basic understanding of media literacy is an essential tool in combating fake news.  They list a series of practices the surfer can utilize in order to become more media literate:

 

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Internet Hoax  (Image from The Inquirer.net

Check out the URL and domain of the source.  Does the URL and/or domain name contain the name of the news organization it is purporting to link to?  Does the URL’s contain a normal top-level domain (the part right after the “.”)?  Is it a “.com” or “.com.rt” or “.com.co”?  The originating website should have “about us,” “contact” or similar type links that will provide you with the background of the website and the means to contact them.  Websites that provide source links back to itself or to sites with credibility issues are suspicious

 

How many quotes are used in the piece?  Just a few or none is probably an indicator of fake news.  If there are a number of quotes, are they from reliable sources?

What are people saying in the comments section?  If a large portion of the commentators are accusing the work of being fake and provide reasonable evidence to back it up, the piece probably is fake and may require additional investigation.

No fool-proof method exists for easy identification of fake news.  As readers, we have to become media literate and practice techniques, such as those listed here, that aid us in recognizing manipulative sources.  This is our best defense against the spread of fake news.

What is fake news’ role in and connection to the “Post-Truth” world?

As mentioned earlier, “Post-Truth” was OxfordDictionary.com’s word of the year. They define post-truth as referring to a situation where emotional appeals and personal narratives hold greater sway and importance in the shaping public opinion than do objective facts.

Emotional appeals and sensationalized stories are the building blocks of fake news. By employing these techniques to produce items for targeted audiences, fake news has created an environment where truth has become an opinion, its honesty judged through its support of a narrative and agreement with a person’s beliefs rather than of any association with real facts.

As we are inundated with a flood of fake news appealing to our emotions and opinions, the boundary we have established between what is factual truth and what is not becomes blurry.  Almost everyone feels their beliefs and opinions are meaningful because we have spent so much time forming and perfecting them.

Articles that validate our beliefs are viewed as fact regardless of any connection to real facts they may have.  Truth is no longer an absolute backed up by facts.  Because of the manipulative power fake news has on well-meaning, but susceptible individuals, facts have evolved away from truth into the post-truth world where facts are validated in proportion to their support of a point or view rather than any connection to truth they may have.  And as fake new news has contributed to the existence of a post-truth world, the post truth world has enabled the further growth of fake news.

 

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What Do People Think?: An Analysis of the Comments Offered for Lindsey Bever’s “If state lawmakers have their way, California schoolchildren may be taught how to spot ‘fake news’,” Washington Post, January 12, 2017.

Lindsey Bever, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote a piece about State of California Assemblyman, Jimmy Gomez’s (D), recently introduced bill requiring schools in the state to create curriculum structure and benchmarks for teaching teenage students “online reasoning” in recognizing “fake news.”

 

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California Assemblyman, Jimmy Gomez (D) (Image from DailyKos.com)

Of the relevant commentary offered by responding readers the curriculum bill (“curriculum”), most (51.52%) seem to think the idea a good one, but only by a margin of two commentators.  Those opposed (45.45%) were almost equal to those in favor.  It would be fair to say it appears serious commentators were close to evenly split about the idea.

 

The article was published on January 12, 2017 and commentary was closed on January 26, 2017.  Although the Post indicates that 150 comments were offered, only 108 actual comments were listed.

Within these 108 comments, 43 were off-topic for various reasons.  The 65 pertinent comments remaining were comprised of 33 unique commentators.  32 of the comments provided by this group were of commentators who had already contributed.  All those additional contributions were condensed into their originating comments to produce one “opinion” from the author.

Of those commentators whose opinions related a negative reaction to the idea of the curriculum, the most cited reasons were: 1) it is an unnecessary waste, 2) learning critical thinking skills would be a better alternative for students, and 3) the curriculum will be nothing more than an avenue for left-wing indoctrination.

Half of those commentators who offered a negative response to the curriculum primarily did so based on their feeling that California is left wing and therefore, the curriculum would be left wing biased.

Commentator AnnieUSA says, “This is a permission slip to list websites liberals don’t like.”  Culturerot fears leftist teachers instructing children on truth spotting.  And SimpleCountyActuary feels that the state educational system is swamped with left-leaning contain falsehoods

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Image from Truthfeed.com

 

These commentators have a pre-conceived notion about the political climate in California, believing it to be biased for the left, and think the State is incapable of providing an environment free of any left-wing partisanship.  They are concerned liberal values are and will be the only values discussed in California schools.

Some were not so concerned with a leftist threat.  Approximately 31% (5) of negative contributors felt the curriculum was unnecessary simple because teaching students critical thinking skills would give them the skills needed.

Chance the Trapper thinks, ” Basic cognitive and research skills should be enough.”  While drluggit suggests a curriculum concentrated on recognizing fake news is virtually the same as one supporting critical thinking.”

These readers felt we only need to return to the days of teaching our young people the importance of critical thinking.  That the curriculum

Some negative commenters were not considering any specific reason as to why they thought the curriculum was a bad idea, they simply did not like it and that was all.  There were three of the commentators (slightly less than 19% of negative responders) who felt the curriculum was a waste and unnecessary.

Old Whiskey thought it was all a waste of time, another way for schools to spend the day not involved in significant education.  “This well intentioned but misguided bill will only take time away from other, more valuable learning,” gregdn claims.

These folks believe the idea is just plain wrong but offer not reason as to why other than to say it is a waste.  The curriculum is either redundant or frivolous and represents money better spent elsewhere.

 

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Kids and Fake News (Image from RaisingDigitalNatives.com)

However, even by the slightest majority (2), most relevant commentators thought the curriculum was a good idea.  Most of these felt these were basic skills that were taught at one time and if not being taught now, they should be.  Other indicated that the curriculum would actual teach students those desired critical thinking skills.  Some felt it was just a good idea without offering any reasoning.

 

Seven (41%) of the commentators offering an affirmative response to the curriculum based their opinion upon the need for critical thinking skills which used to be taught in the past but, apparently, not currently.

One commentator, “Amy Crittenden,” responds that in the sixth grade she was taught how to read periodicals and recognize the difference between the reporting of facts and the expression of opinions.  She cannot fathom why these skills are no longer taught.

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Girl reading a newspaper (Image from Weebly.com)

 

Another suggests, “THIS is what brings civics lesson back into our schools? A bit overdue, don’t you think?”

Commentator BillyAl also reminisces, “This was part of my DC area private school education, except back then it was about printed news.”

It seems to these readers, the solution rests in restoring shelved curriculum subject matter (critical thinking) which was taught in the past, but not now.

4 affirming commentators (approximately 24% of those who were positive commentators) felt that the curriculum would provide students with the appropriate critical thinking skills needed to discern “fake news.”

Green4T2ude offers, “Good, critical thinking should be a part of a normal curriculum.”

Another comments, “Obviously, schools need to teach critical thinking. Rather than just how to succeed at tests, which seems to be the current national obsession.”

EvilSpoke suggests, “Everyone needs a BS detector. Of course, this is the role of the schools.”

These commentators appear to support the curriculum and believe it should implemented as an important segment of a school’s required instruction.

Just under 18% (3 commentators) thought it was simply a good idea.

Ohthepain, “Thanks for this, good for CA.”  Forestfromtrees, “This sounds like a perfectly reasonable approach.”  And AbstractThought, “This is a fantastic idea.”

These guys feel the idea is just plain good without having to offer any reason as to why. Their comments were brief (to say the least) and they offered no reasons for their opinion other than to say they just thought it was needed.

As for me, I feel anything we can teach our children which will assist them in ascertaining truth and avoiding illusion and falsehood would be the least we could do for them.  We are admonished by our founding fathers to nurture all methods of “forming a more perfect union.”  Giving our progeny the skills with which to discern fact from fiction provides them with a solid foundation for dealing with differences of opinions among our citizenry.  Understanding, compromising and building bridges cannot go forward if falsehoods stand as the major means of supporting an issue.

Excellent Perspective: A Rhetorical Analysis of Scott Shane’s, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”

From zero to viral in a flash, widespread fake news emerges from almost nowhere as if by spontaneous generation and propagates throughout social media at light speed.  For most of us, fake news, like the type that proliferated our Facebook pages during the last election, is a relatively new phenomenon.
But where does fake news come from?  How does it progress from conception to viral?  Award-winning New York Time’s columnist, Scott Shane, examines a recent notorious example of fake news,
Cameron Harris’ “Fraudulent Ballots for Hillary Clinton Found in Ohio Warehouse,” from inception to dissemination, in his January 2017 article, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece.” In it, he expertly introduces us to the life cycle of this fake news article (and indirectly many more), as if it were the pinnacle creation of one fake news’ more prolific budding artists.

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Cameron Harris in his home office (Image from NYTimes.com)

Prolific in his own right, Scott Shane has worked for The New York Times, as a Washington Bureau reporter since 2004.  He writes about a variety of topics but primality on national security related issues.  He was recently awarded the Lionel Gelber Prize, for his book, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President and the Rise of the Drone.”  Prior to the New York Times, Shane worked as a reporter for
The Baltimore Sun starting in 1983 and was a correspondent in Moscow 1988 – 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  His book about the demise of the USSR, “Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union,” was lauded by the Los Angeles Times as one of the fundamental works on the subject.

In this article, Shane exposes us to the nature and lifespan of fake news by taking us through the life cycle of Harris’ famously successful fake news meme.  Setting the stage for his story using a callback to Trump’s August 2016 Columbus Ohio campaign speech (where the candidate alludes to possible Hillary-initiated election fraud), Shane starts at this Trump inspired spark that gave birth to Harris’ idea for the fake news meme. Shane then leads us down the path Harris used to conceptualize, produce, publish and distribute this (and most of his) fake news. Beginning with the spark and the fake news headline it inspired, to the media material needed to produce the fake posting, the website that hosted it and the Facebook accounts that helped share and spread it, Shane explains to us to the methods and tools Harris (and most likely many fake news purveyors) used to create his masterpiece.

 

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Cameron Harris’ ChristianTimesNewspaper.com Fake News Meme about Hilary Clinton (Image from NYTimes.com)

With every production phase he discusses, Shane shows what Harris does and how the effects of his methods, whether intentional or fortuitous, elevate this particular fake story to a masterpiece level.

 

Shane’s familiarity and insight of the methods Harris used to produce his story originate from Harris himself.  He contacted Harris and spoke with him about his fake article.  Shane’s recollection and analysis of the conversation provide us with the detail that only a meme creator, such as Harris, can provide.  We get to see things as Harris saw them and discover the fake news production process straight from the horse’s mouth, so to say.  An interesting perspective indeed.

Throughout this work, Shane takes an interesting direction and allows Harris to explain himself and his role in this controversial practice.  Most would think fake news is generally viewed as a bad thing and the people who traffic in it might typically be presented in a negative light.  Yet, Shane offers no obvious criticism or praise of Harris.  He allows Harris to define himself and tell his own narrative to us.  This allows us to read between the lines of Harris’ conversation and gain a more in-depth understanding of him and his actions.  It’s this perspective of Harris and his role as an unexpected human face to this less popular side of the fake news phenomenon that allows us to concentrate less on him and more on the life of his Hillary meme

Harris is rather candid with Shane and that permits Shane to give us a unique perspective of the fake news phenomenon, specifically from the “perpetrator’s” point of view.  Yet, as he is doing this he is also offering us a broader glimpse into the relative ease with which almost anyone can create and disseminate fake news for whatever purpose or gain they hope to achieve. Maybe with this informative and excellent perspective, we can understand and recognize fake items more readily and react to them more calmly and intelligently.  Or perhaps, on the other hand, we can all start making our own fake news stories now.