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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