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SIFTing Through Fake News

What is Fake News?

There is no one standard definition for fake news or even consensus surrounding the phrase "fake news."  Some dislike the use of the wording "fake news" because it has been used by people to discredit real news they do not like.  A Wikipedia article on fake news references Claire Wardle of First Draft News. She rejects the term fake news and uses instead "information pollution." She puts this "information pollution" into three categories focusing on intent. They are:

  1. Mis-information: false information disseminated without harmful intent.
  2. Dis-information: created and shared by people with harmful intent.
  3. Mal-information: the sharing of "genuine" information with the intent to cause harm.

She also identifies seven types of fake news:

  1. satire or parody ("no intention to cause harm but has potential to fool")
  2. false connection ("when headlines, visuals or captions don't support the content")
  3. misleading content ("misleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual")
  4. false context ("when genuine content is shared with false contextual information")
  5. impostor content ("when genuine sources are impersonated" with false, made-up sources)
  6. manipulated content ("when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive", as with a "doctored" photo)
  7. fabricated content ("new content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm")

Others use the term "counter media," which is defined as anything outside of the mainstream media or traditional news outlets. Counter media usually mimics the style of mainstream sources, but without the same journalistic rigor to a code of ethics.

What Are the Dangers of Fake News?

Fake news can result in real world decisions with real consequences.  Consider information related to the safety of vaccines. "Twelve years after publishing a landmark study that turned tens of thousands of parents around the world against the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine because of an implied link between vaccinations and autism, The Lancet has retracted the paper," as stated in an article published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ). The study was fraudulent and fabricated data. But even though the study was eventually retracted, the damage had been done. Many parents became anti-vaccines, and as a result, many children went unvaccinated. 

Another concern is becoming caught in a web of information that reinforces a person's beliefs. This is also known as a filter bubble or echo chamber. A person searches a topic and because of algorithms used by search engines and social media, they are bombarded with sources that may reaffirm faulty, biased, or incendiary information as in the case of Dylan Roof. 

Video from the Southern Poverty Law Center

 

Some believe fake news is a threat to our democracy. According to a CQ Researcher article on cyberwarfare, Russia and at least six other countries use online campaigns to influence public thought outside of their borders.  Russia has used fake Facebook accounts to spread false or divisive information. The article also states that Russia views its information operations or what they call "cognitive warfare" as more effective than conventional weapons. Countries such as the United States that are founded on principles of free speech are particularly vulnerable. "Jacquelyn  Schneider, who studies cybersecurity at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, believes the biggest threat is more insidious: the work of nations such as Russia and Iran to undermine faith in our basic institutions through online disinformation or interruptions in service." They are creating chaos and mistrust of each other, processes, and data needed to make informed decisions. 

Karaim, Reed. "Cyberwarfare." CQ Researcher, 28 Feb. 2020, pp. 1-27, library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2020022800.

Who Spreads Fake News?

Everyone spreads fake news, sometimes intentionally, and many times unintentionally. Studies have found that those at either extreme of the political spectrum are the most likely to share fake news, especially those that mistrust mainstream media. Also, older adults are more likely to share fake news. This story is from The Verge. Can you find the original study? 

Who Shares the Most Fake News?, an article from University of Colorado Boulder, is reporting on a scholarly paper. Did the article accurately represent the study?

Who is Susceptible?

Everyone is susceptible, from Presidents to myself. President Trump once retweeted an article from a satirical news site The Babylon Bee thinking it was true. I re-shared a video my father sent me, believing it was true until I recently found out it wasn't. Most people probably have a story of sharing something only to find out later it wasn't true.

Many people wrongly assume that they are too smart or clever to fall for fake news, but this is simply not the case. Most of us are actually terrible at identifying fake news. Why? One reason is because we were taught to read vertically and use checklists.

What we should be doing is something professional fact-checkers do: read laterally. Watch the video below from the Civic Online Reasoning curriculum created by Stanford University to find out more.

Why Are We Susceptible?

There are many reasons why we are susceptible to fake news stories. Humans tend to respond emotionally to fake news headlines that are written in such a way to illicit a strong reaction from us. We might want it to be true because it validates our beliefs. Social media and the internet makes it very easy to click and share something we see. Sometimes we might be too lazy or impatient to take the time to verify a story, or we might be inundated with so much information that it is difficult to find the flowers for the weeds. Sometimes, we might share something that was sent to us by someone we trust. When you are tempted to believe something online or want to share it, stop and take a moment and ask yourself if you can be certain it is true. If you can't be certain, don't share it and don't necessarily believe it.

How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study

This is a very interesting story of how someone innocently assumed something based on what they saw without verifying the facts. With only 40 Twitter followers, the person probably had no idea the impact they could have. Even after "correcting" their mistake, the story had spread like wildfire beyond the point of control.

Skills to Identify Fake News

Information Literacy can help us become better at detecting poor sources and at seeking out and finding good sources of information. Information literacy is the ability to find, use, and evaluate information effectively and efficiently. Nina Jankowicz, author of the book How to Lose the Information War, and a fellow at The Wilson Center, a Washington Think Tank believes education is the best answer to combatting fake news. She says, "You're never going to stop this stuff (fake news), it's always existed.....The answer is, giving people the tools they need to identify [disinformation] and make a rational choice based on their own beliefs." 

One of the things to realize is that we need a different set of skills for evaluating information online versus traditional print sources of information.  Research has shown that traditional checklists for evaluating a source do not work so well with the plethora of online sources. Nowadays it is very easy and cheap to create a very professional-looking website that can easily fool us if we are only looking at the site. The key is to open tabs and begin to search outside of the site at what other sources have to say about a source or a claim.

A good example of this is two very different sites that sound very similar. They are The American Academy of Pediatrics and The American College of Pediatricians. The first is a well-respected group of over 67,000 members established over 90 years ago. The second is a socially conservative group of about 500 members established less than 20 years ago that is against LGBTQ+ couples adopting children and advocates for conversion therapy.

Another example is the Denver Guardian, which sounds like a legitimate newspaper, but was actually created as a fake news site. The Denver Guardian no longer exists, but when it did, it fooled many people into sharing a fake story on Hillary Clinton prior to the 2016 election.

An example of an image being used to create a false impression is an image that circulate of Arianna Grande covered in blood. The image was  being connected to a news story about an explosion in Manchester, England, after her concert. The explosion did occur, but the image being used with the story was actually of Arianna Grande on a movie set a couple years prior, and the blood is stage makeup. The image and the story are unrelated.

The SIFT Method

There is a method called SIFT, where each letter represents a "move" and each move is tied to a couple of specific, straightforward, simple, but extremely effective techniques for evaluating a source or a claim. These techniques can be used in any order and as much or as little as needed, depending on your specific purpose. 

S: Stop

I: Investigate the Source

F: Find Better Coverage

T: Trace back to the original context

Watch the brief videos below for an explanation of these techniques.

Fact-Checking Sites

Tutorials, Videos, and Infographics

Check Please! Starter Course: a free online course in five parts, each about thirty minutes in length, teaching how to use the SIFT Method to evaluate information online. 

Civic Online Reasoning from Stanford University:  curriculum, assessments, and videos for teachers and students to learn better ways to evaluate information online based on the results of a study they conducted with students, professional historians, and professional fact-checkers.

Navigating Digital Information "In 10 episodes, John Green will teach you how to navigate the internet! We’ve partnered with MediaWise, The Poynter Institute, and The Stanford History Education Group to develop this curriculum of hands-on skills to help you evaluate the information you read online."