There is a lot of talk in the U.S. and around the world right now about fake news. What, exactly, is fake news? Generally, fake news is information that is wholly or partially made up, but designed to look like an authentic news report and to attract lots of attention – often resulting in advertising revenue. It often appeals to the strong emotions of its targeted audience.
Oxford Dictionary acknowledged its influence by announcing the 2016 word of the year: post-truth, an adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
I think we should all exercise caution especially when dealing with those stories that do cause an emotional reaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake news (just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean it is fake news) but it can be a red flag that the story merits double-checking with additional sources. Seek those not related to the first source where you encountered it.
Here are some websites that you can use to evaluate news sources:
The Media Bias/Fact Check news website has a search bar on its main page where you can type in the name of a news source and retrieve a scale that attempts to qualify how far to the left or right that news source typically leans. They maintain a list of questionable sources. The website also has a list of what is generally accepted to be the least biased news sources, which you can find here. MBFC explains their methodology and acknowledges that no evaluation is 100% without bias. Check out the list – you may learn about a new source that you will want to make a habit of checking on a regular basis. I’ll admit the ads are bothersome, but it is how they pay to keep the site running.
FactCheck.org is one source you can use to double-check information. Facebook recently announced that it is partnering with this source to help identify and flag fake news circulated on its platform. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. According to their website, their mission is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics…Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.” This site is primarily focused on U.S. politics. During election years, they will report on the accuracy of what is aired on political TV ads and in debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.
Another source to verify political information is Politifact.com, self-described as “an independent, nonpartisan news organization… not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest.” They have a long history, which you can read about here. The system of evaluation they use is called the Truth-o-meter, which ranges from “Truth” on one end to “Pants on Fire” on the other. They have a newsletter to which you can subscribe if you wish to receive information updates on the latest fact-checks. They are also partnering with Facebook to help flag fake news when it is shared.
For information that covers a broader array than politics, Snopes.com can be helpful. I like the search option at the top of the page where you can easily type in any keywords and retrieve information on rumors and urban legends. It began in 1995 and has become a well-known online source for debunking falsehoods or verifying facts with evidence.
As an information professional, I encourage people to take some time to verify information sources before accepting them as completely true. When presented with information in any form, take care to ask yourself these questions:
- Who wrote/originally said this? Is the author clearly identified? What else has the author written and has it been disputed in any way?
- What is this? Is it a presentation of facts? An opinion piece? An advertisement?
- When was it written? Is there new information available that could shed more light on or take the place of this information?
- Where was the information gleaned? Was the person reporting it actually a witness to the events reported? Is there data/photos to back it up and are the sources cited? Are there quotes from others in the know and are they relevant to the topic being reported?
- Why did the author write this? Is it designed to entertain, to influence my purchases or affect my decisions in a certain way?
We at the library want to help you build awareness about information and what it is designed to do. Not all information is presented to simply inform. Much of the information we are deluged with on a daily basis is designed to influence. That is not necessarily bad, but we all need to be aware of how information influences us. Likewise, we need to acknowledge our own personal biases and be honest and gracious with ourselves and others that they exist.
I invite you to learn more about this topic by attending a panel discussion about fake news, hosted at the Eastern Avenue branch library on Monday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 pm. The event is free of charge and refreshments will be provided. Please come with questions for our panelists, which include representatives from local television, print and radio news sources as well as writers and educators in the field of journalism. Visit our webpage for more details.