People are taking fake news at face value.
Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president and Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS – according to some of the most-read false election stories published in 2016.
You may not have fallen for it, but someone you know may have believed the headlines and shared these stories online. Fake news stories were shared nearly 40 million times on Facebook during the three months leading to the November election, according to a 2017 study by Stanford University and New York University. That’s almost 445,000 shares a day or about 18,500 shares every hour.
People clicked, reacted and shared so much that fake news outranked the real thing on Facebook over that 90-day span, according to a BuzzFeed analysis. The top five false election stories received higher engagement than the top five mainstream election stories, at a time when trust of mainstream media has reached a record low.
Gallup reported in 2016 that 32% of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in mass media, the lowest level since the poll began in 1972. Although the study points to the presidential election as a potential cause for the low numbers, it also noted an overall decline in confidence since 2004.
What is Fake News?
Fake news has been around for a while. Supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer, Globe and Daily Star (based out of the United Kingdom) have been sensationalizing celebrity gossip, crime and other entertainment topics for decades.
With the advent of the internet came satirical websites like The Onion, which seek to entertain readers by poking fun at world affairs, science, religion and politics.
Spoof websites also published shocking headlines in 2016, but not with the intent to make you believe them. Here are some of The Onion’s most-read headlines as cited by the New York Daily News:
- Johnson & Johnson Introduces ‘Nothing But Tears’ Shampoo to Toughen Up Newborns
- Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules
The proliferation of fake news you’re reading about now is being presented as real or legitimate news without any factual basis.
The rise in fake news is “damaging the ability for people to go on news sites and believe what they are seeing,” said Bryan Partridge, an associate professor of writing at New England College (NEC) in Henniker, N.H. “I think that people see something online and automatically believe that it must be true.
“I’m trying to teach my students that indifference no longer works in the research process – not that it ever did,” Partridge said.
Today, fake political stories presented as real news are flooding the internet and confusing readers, appearing on websites with URLs designed to look like CNN, Huffington Post, Fox News and other legitimate news outlets. Catchy headlines with “Breaking News” or “You Won’t Believe This” grab readers’ attention with the goal of getting them to click on the article and share it on social media.
News generally can be placed within one of three categories: mainstream media, partisan and fake news.
- Mainstream media outlets have trained journalists, a code of ethics and established procedures to ensure the accuracy of published content. When mistakes are made there is a process to publish corrections quickly. There are consequences for organizations and journalists when errors are made, including damage to reputation and possible termination.
- Partisan news sites are generally ideology-driven. Data may be cherry-picked to support biased content, and there may be no attempt to be neutral or provide sources from different viewpoints. Unlike with fake news sites, writers publish content that supports a specific point of view.
- Fake news or propaganda sites publish fabricated stories. Unlike satire websites, fake news sites try to mislead readers rather than entertain them. And, unlike with partisan news, owners and writers of fake news sites may have no political agenda.
Partridge challenges NEC students in his online writing and composition courses to follow the facts, or lack thereof, and figure out if an article is true, false or satire. In one assignment, students select an article posted by one of their friends on Twitter or Facebook and determine whether it’s real or not.
“Through that process, they’re learning how to use the online databases, they’re learning to test their own assumptions, they’re learning not to just – you know, you see something on a blurb on the news and you go to the cafeteria and you start telling people without ever deciding whether or not that’s factual information,” he said.
Partridge said the assignment opens students’ eyes to the amount of fake news that is out there.
Why Fake News is a Problem
In December 2016, a North Carolina man fired shots inside a pizzeria in the nation’s capital, claiming he was “self-investigating” online articles that alleged Hillary Clinton was tied to a child-trafficking ring taking place inside the restaurant, The Washington Post reported.
No one was injured in the incident, but the online conspiracy theory known as “Pizzagate” demonstrated how a hoax can turn into a dangerous situation with real consequences.
According to a Pew Research Study, 64% of Americans say fake news is causing “a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.” During the 2016 presidential election, false stories ignited public opinion on social media and, as a result, went viral – exactly what fake news writers want.
It’s estimated that fake news writers can earn $5,000 to $10,000 a month via online advertising based on web traffic, BuzzFeed reported.
More than 100 fake publishers are based in the small town of Veles in the Republic of Macedonia, nearly 6,000 miles from the United States. One Veles teen reportedly earned $27,000 in one month before the U.S. election by giving the world fake headlines such as “BREAKING: Obama Confirms Refusal To Leave White House, He Will Stay In Power!” or “JUST IN: Obama Illegally Transferred DOJ Money To Clinton Campaign!”
Macedonia may have become an online fake news factory during the election, but the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics or to the Balkan nation. View our map of false news headlines from around the world.
Warning Signs of Fake News
Fake news producers use some common tricks to lure unsuspecting readers into clicking, from sensational headlines to websites designed to resemble legitimate news organizations.
How do you discern between real or fake? Fact-checking websites can help.
Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, debunks and monitors statements by major U.S. political players. The Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com is run by editors and reporters from The Tampa Bay Times who examine and research claims by elected officials, candidates, political activists and leaders of political parties. Snopes.com is one of the largest fact-checking websites and covers everything from politics to urban legends and rumors.
Perhaps the best way to stay informed is to diversify where you get your news. It’s one thing to read articles posted on social media, but consider subscribing to your local newspaper or national news publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today. Listen to the morning report on the radio during your commute.
Collect the most up-to-date news from a variety of sources, and take advantage of media and communication outlets via TV, print and online to keep pace with current events and political issues.