Fake news has become a buzzword of late. In fact, PolitiFact called fake news its “Lie of the Year” for 2016.
Actually, fake news has been going on for a long time. The “National Enquirer,” “The Star,” and any number of other tabloid papers have been around since I was young (as I said, a long time). Penn State had the “Daily Collusion” and other names for its annual parody of the local “Daily Collegian.” That was from 1978 to 1982, and may still be going on today.
And satire, while big now, has always been around. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was an ideal satire: an idea, presented to the extreme, calling attention to a serious problem. Many publications had taken up the mantle, like “Mad Magazine” and “National Lampoon.”
There is a big difference between fake news and satire. Later on I will talk about a study researching fake news that does a great job of categorizing various publications.
Many have argued that fake news stories might have swayed the election. We have seen the effects: a gunman entered a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, “doing his own research” on a story about Hillary Clinton running a sex slave operation in the basement. (The pizza shop didn’t even have a basement.) The spread of a lie might have cost lives. Yet people retweet stories that are fake all the time.
The only way to stop its proliferation is to do your research, find the truth yourself, and call out the lies. We really don’t have time for that, so we rely on others to do their research, which is why fake news is dangerous. It totally undermines the value of a free press.
Conservatives are saying liberals are decrying fake news while they get their news from “The Daily Show.” There is a big difference. Jon Stewart has always been very clear that he is not a journalist, and is only poking fun. Still, the stories are well-researched and have some very sound arguments. There is a liberal slant to their presentation, but I don’t think anything has been an outright lie. John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO covers the same territory in the same way – with the added bonus of swearing!
Fake news publications like The Onion and the above-mentioned Daily Collusion clearly state that their stories are fake (if you couldn’t tell after reading the headlines). Their goal is clearly entertainment; anyone who believes any of their stories needs to get a few lessons in analytical thinking.
Then there are sites whose sole purpose in presenting fake news is to inflame their base. This article in The Daily Dot discusses a study by Melissa Zimdars, media professor at Merrimack College. She lists four categories of fake news sites, with descriptions. It is a more concise and helpful list, much more so than anything I could possibly come up with.
“CATEGORY 1: Below is a list of fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on “outrage” by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits. These websites are categorized with the number 1 next to them.
“CATEGORY 2: Some websites on this list may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information, and they are marked with a 2.
“CATEGORY 3: Other websites on this list sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions, and they are marked with a 3.
“CATEGORY 4: Other sources on this list are purposefully fake with the intent of satire/comedy, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. I’m including them here, for now, because 1.) they have the potential to perpetuate misinformation based on different audience (mis)interpretations and 2.) to make sure anyone who reads a story by The Onion, for example, understands its purpose. If you think this is unnecessary, please see Literally Unbelievable.”
The entire article is at http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/fake-news-sites-list-facebook/. You may also want to check out “Literally Unbelievable” (link above). It is both sad and hilarious.
There is a difference between Category 1 sites and Category 4 sites. Any meme stating otherwise is playing fast and loose with what they call “fake news.”
How do we learn to recognize fake news, and what can we do about it? I see a few steps.
- Learn which sites deal in fake news. The article above is a good starting place for fake news sources.
- Develop and strengthen your bullshit detector. My wife is better at that than I am; she has pointed out scams that I didn’t recognize. Try to set biases aside, and see if a story makes sense. If it doesn’t, check it out to see.
- In addition to sites that deal in fake news, learn where to go to verify a story. PolitiFact and Snopes are two of the biggest, but CNN is starting to do fact checking, and The Skeptical Inquirer has been around for a long while, if only in print form.
- Finally, if someone reposts a story that smells bullshitty, and you find out that it is, show the person what you found. Help him learn what you looked for. You might get pushback, you might even get people who say, “I know that story about Clinton is wrong, but look at all the other horrible stuff she’s done.” I hope there will be a few who see what they did and try harder to smell out the fake stories.