Publicity

The Rise of Fake News and How to Recognize It

Greg Houston, reporterAs a trained and one-time practicing news reporter-producer-assignment editor, it’s difficult to watch how far journalism has fallen in the eyes of the public and not be a bit saddened (and admittedly embarrassed).

Objectivity, balance (get both sides of the story), fact checking (confirm claims with two independent sources), truth, and accuracy are among the many things our professors hammered in to us every day. I’ve been out of the journalism business for 33 years. To suggest the industry has changed markedly is an understatement. Chief among the notable changes are today’s 24-hour news cycle, the explosion of news outlets/channels, and the rise of fake news. Anyone can be a journalist today, or so it would appear.

Fake news is nothing new, however, the way in which it’s created and disseminated is why fake news is making (and creating) headlines. A number of factors have combined in recent years to create the perfect storm for fake news to cast its bolts of misinformation in every direction. Let’s take a look at what’s to blame for the rise of fake news.

Social Media’s Reach

The escalation of social media has created a platform for the mass dissemination of news from any person or source. While Facebook has been around for more than a decade, it’s only been over the past few years that the social network has assumed a critical role in the dissemination of (real and fake) news.

Citing a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, USA Today reported that just under two in every three Americans (63%) say that fake news creates “great confusion” among the public about current events, with an additional 24% saying it creates “some confusion.” This is frightening when paired with a previous Pew study, which found that nearly one in two Americans (47%) get some news from Facebook.

The fake news crisis hit its peak during the 2016 presidential-election cycle.

Top 20 Facebook Engagements Graph

The Political Push

In the wake of WikiLeaks, many fraudulent stories were published during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and were targeted at specific political factions. Rapid-fire sharing across Facebook and other social networks then fueled the articles.

In a recent study, Buzzfeed reported that the 20 top-performing fake election stories received more engagement in the final three months of the campaign than the top 20 legitimate election stories from 19 major news sites.

Even if a fake news site isn’t pushing its own political agenda, it’s tapping into one for the simple goal of making money.

Money to be Made

This new era of “pageview journalism” rewards publishers for clicks and site traffic with ad revenue, creating a fertile breeding ground for fake news.

NPR tracked down and interviewed a fake-news creator who runs multiple sites and manages between 20 and 25 writers at any given time. California-based Jestin Coler, founder and CEO of a company called Disinfomedia, wouldn’t give exact numbers, but told NPR about other fake-news creators making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month that were applying to his operation. He’s sort of a “kingpin” of the fake-news industry, but this shows that there’s serious money to be made from ads on these websites, which are created to look as legitimate as the nation’s leading traditional news publications and sources.

And without much concern about legal action, what’s stopping them?

The Challenge of Legal Consequence

If an individual or business (like D.C.’s Comet Pizza) is defamed, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint who originated that story. Further complicating the issue are expanding discussions across social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and 4chan. There’s little recourse available to the defamed, and what is available, will cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Fake news has muddied the waters on defamation laws and the true meaning of “freedom of expression.”

Facebook and Google, among others, have taken steps to stop the spread of fake news, but the perpetrators just move onto the next ad network. They’re smart people who cunningly take advantage of technology and the times.

But we have one important defense system: ourselves.

Tips for Recognizing Fake News

In these times of fake news and misinformation, it’s up to us to be part of the solution. Here are a few tips to recognize fake news and stop its spread.

  • Examine the source and its domain: Don’t just share or engage with something because of the headline. Click through to determine if the source is legitimate. Domain names and website appearances make some outlets look like the real deal. For example, Jansen uses domains like USAToday.com.co, abcnews.com.co, and washingtonpost.com.co.
  • Sensational headlines: Attention-grabbing headlines are purposely crafted to win the race for clicks, shares and impressions. If it seems too wacky to be true, it probably is.
  • Suspicious authors: If an author isn’t listed or you can’t find any background, be wary. Many fake news sites will also just list “Editor” or “Staff” as the byline.
  • Errors and misspellings: Journalistic integrity and precision mean nothing to these fake-news peddlers. Fake news is often riddled with spelling errors that will make you cringe and tip you off about the story’s legitimacy.
  • All CAPS!!!: An all-caps headline or an article littered with exclamation points may grab your attention, but trained journalists do not use either.

Facts and truth still matter. Or at least they certainly do to those of us who take journalism seriously and who understand and respect its enormous responsibility in a free and democratic society.

You’ve heard what I think about the current media landscape. Now I’d be interested to hear from you. Which news outlets and journalists, if any, do you trust in this age of fake news and alternative facts? Comment below or message me directly. And if you don’t have a trusted source, I’ll have a few suggestions for you!


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