The furor over a flood of fake news has put pressure on Facebook and Google to somehow become the Internet’s censors to keep falsehoods and fraudulent news stories out of circulation.
Are we so trusting of digital ingenuity that our first instinct is to ask for an algorithmic solution when undoubtedly the best solution is to fix the formula between our ears?
I am now communication educator teaching media literacy, a broad field examining how information is presented and sourced. I teach students how to use simple techniques to be their own best editors or gatekeepers – so they can detect false stories and frauds before sharing them.
Nothing is foolproof but if these skills were widespread, Americans could have discredited some of the most absurd stories that circulated during the presidential campaign.
By now you have heard the familiar examples: Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSuper PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 Neera Tanden tapped as White House staff secretary MORE Armed Islamic Jihadists or the Pope Endorsed Trump or Obama Refuses to Leave Office if Trump Wins.
None of these were true, of course. Any reader skilled in news literacy basics should have recognized them for the shameless, “clickbait’ they were, designed to entice users to click so that the Google or Facebook ad platform would kick back tiny amounts of money-per-click to false news factories mostly in Macedonia, yes, Macedonia, the tiny former Yugoslav nation nestled in the Balkans.
Also, independent researchers who study Russian online activity have come up with evidence suggesting that Russian authorities instigated some of it not on behalf of a candidate, but to deepen the American political divide.
There has been a flurry of debate as to whether any of those nonsensical stories influenced the election. They did reach millions of Americans but there is little or no evidence indicating that the fakes made it into mainstream media reports.
Mark Zuckerberg says Facebook is considering several ways to signal if stories are false through reporting and labeling technology.
Buzzfeed.com, which has done excellent investigative work on false stories, thinks they zipped around the Internet at far greater rates than anything like the truth, confirming Winston Churchill’s line, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
One way to address this is for readers to use news literacy tools offered by SUNY Stony Brook’s journalism school, a leader in news literacy:
Here are questions that we teach students to ask of every major story: Independence -- Are people in the story independent? Or do they represent a partisan point of view?
Multiple -- Are there multiple sources named or at least partially identified? Who says this and how do they know it?
Verify – Can data or information be separately verified? Is the website or the publication transparent about its sources of information and can they be checked?
Authoritative and Informed – Are people quoted in the article knowledgeable and associated with credible organization that can be traced?
Are they current with the news and not just locked in an echo chamber?
Named – Are people who are in the story fully identified?
Part of the problem with fake news is that traditional journalism has come up short in answering many of these news literacy questions. The newsrooms are constantly debating the overuse of anonymous sources, and vowing to improve.
(They don’t.) Editors know their liberal biases but usually fail to screen them out or at least balance them with conservative voices. Too often TV’s talking heads broadcast information they do not know first-hand.
Whether or not Facebook and Google will develop programs to filter out false news, it is our responsibility as educators and as readers to become our best filters.
More than half of us are turning to social media for news, and that will only grow.
The answer is not first to turn to technology and risk the censorship that First Amendment freedoms have prohibited. The answer is for us to remember that the hard work of democracy is ours alone.
Leonard M. Apcar is a former New York Times editor, and a professional-in-residence at Louisiana State University where he holds the Wendell Gray Switzer Jr. Endowed Chair in Media Literacy. Kylie Shae Keyser, a graduate student at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs and an LSU graduate, assisted in the research of this column.
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