Our View: How to mitigate the harms of fake news
February 25, 2017
Facebook has been in the news lately because of its renewed focus on fighting one of its demons from the 2016 elections: fake news.
While the Facebook manifesto, user experience changes and advanced partnerships with the media are to be celebrated, is the issue at hand really Facebook’s problem to fix? Oxford Dictionaries selected post-truth as its word of the year for a reason.
What is fake news?
While the phrase has only recently become a hot-button issue, the idea of manipulation and sensationalism in the media is nothing new.
Starting around the mid-1890s, the craze of attention-seeking headlines, fabricated sources and general sensationalism in the papers became known as yellow journalism.
The spread of this misinformation helped lead this country into the Spanish-American War and sparked a debate about the role of journalism in society.
Two major changes set the current problem apart from the age of yellow journalism.
No longer is the message coming from a recognizable and trusted source and misinformation is now only a few clicks away from going viral.
Fake news is not simply factually inaccurate, but it is created to cause some kind of harm to a political opponent.
Simply claiming that CNN is fake news holds little weight. Even if the initial reports aren’t factually accurate in a story, legitimate news sources like CNN aren’t intending to cause harm and will correct its mistakes.
The problem of fake news can be mitigated with one simple step.
Read the articles you share on social media. In the world of journalism, an adage about fact checking holds a lot of weight in the post-fact era.
If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Don’t be afraid to Google some of the numbers in the article or do other simple fact-checking to determine the legitimacy of an unknown source.
A classic example of this was the widely spread fake news story now referred to as Pizzagate.
The story of how former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking organization snowballed from anonymous users on the online message board 4Chan.
It eventually snowballed into real threats to the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria and gained huge traction on social media platforms.
The New York Times reported that the owner of the pizzeria, James Alefantis, had never met Clinton but was a supporter and had many prominent Democratic friends.
While the current media environment has often put speed before accuracy, this isn’t enough reason to dismiss fact with an apathetic shrug of the shoulders.
No matter how unfair it is, more responsibility has to fall on the shoulders of readers to seek the truth.
Sure, one tweet isn’t likely to start a war (if it comes from the @POTUS Twitter account this could be a different story), but the continued spread of straight lies is like a million tiny cracks on the glass cage holding our democracy together.
This problem is just another barrier aiding the polarization of this nation, and if we can no longer agree on facts, then there is no chance of us coming together to create the solutions to our problems.