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Fake News

This library guide will help you learn what fake news is, why it is so prevalent in society, and how to spot it.

Read all about it!

The world of fake news is a pretty grim one to live in. In this alternate universe, presidential candidates have opponents murdered, pizza parlors engage in human trafficking,  and Spaniards are sinking our battleships

Luckily, this isn't the world we live in. However, we are living in a world that some, like the Oxford Dictionary, have deemed "post-truth." 

Many believe that this is a modern problem that comes out of our social media habits, but the truth is that fake news has always been a concern. It's a natural inclination for us to want to believe information that confirms our beliefs, and that inclination has been taken advantage of by opportunists for as long as we've consumed news.

In order to be competent information consumers, we need to learn how to properly evaluate information, and engage with our sources. This is a skill that will be useful not just in an academic career, but throughout life. 

Comic by Signe Wilkinson / Philly.com (WPWG 2016)                                                                         

Types of Fake News

There are four broad categories of fake news, according to media professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College.

CATEGORY 1: 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.

CATEGORY 2: Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information

CATEGORY 3: Websites which sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions

CATEGORY 4: Satire/comedy sites, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news

No single topic falls under a single category - for example, false or misleading medical news may be entirely fabricated (Category 1), may intentionally misinterpret facts or misrepresent data (Category 2), may be accurate or partially accurate but use an alarmist title to get your attention (Category 3) or may be a critique on modern medical practice (Category 4.)  Some articles fall under more than one category.  It is up to you to do the legwork to make sure your information is good.

Infographic: Fake News Is A Real Problem | Statista

Beware the Infographic! 

If you frequently use social media, there is a good chance you've seen something like this chart that claims to distinguish quality news sources from fake ones. This particular infographic was created by Vanessa Ortero, and first appeared on Instagram in December 2016. The graphic attempts to differentiate between quality news sources, and those that are generally less trustworthy.

While memes like these can be great conversation starters, they do not help to stop the spread of fake news. 

The reason is something called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe information is credible if it conforms to the reader’s/viewer’s existing belief system, or not credible if it does not conform. So, frequent consumers of sources that this graphic claims are untrustworthy will often dismiss it entirely, and consumers of those sources it praises will often ignore the unscientific nature of the work. 

It is important to remember that broad characterizations and hard and fast rules won't solve the fake news problem

So what should we do? 

Instead of going with a "gut feeling," or your personal view of the validity of a source, try engaging with the source critically. When looking at an information source, try asking yourself the Five W's. 

  • Who? Who wrote this? Can you even tell? Are they an authority in this topic? Credentials are important, but first hand accounts are also important. Most importantly: who stands to benefit if you believe this source?
  • What? What kind of resource is this? Is it an advertisement? Newspaper article? Scholarly research article? Also, what kind of information does it present? Does the content accurately match up with what you already know about this topic? And another thing: are there a bunch of advertisements, either related or unrelated to the topic of the article?
  • When? How up-to-date is the information? And how soon after an event was this published? (We've all seen false reports and misinformation happen shortly after major events like school shootings.) Also, how up-to-date do you need the information to be? Looking for reviews of classic movies that came out shortly after the cinematic debut versus critical acclaim that came years later can make a big difference.
  • Where? Country of origin?  How different is the information provided by CNN versus BBC versus Al-Jazeera? Also, where is this information in relation to the structure of the website? Is it on the front page? Is it buried?
  • Why? What's the purpose of the source? Is it trying to sell you something? Convince you of something? Share facts? Also, why are you looking at this source? Entertainment? Medical research? Academic need?

Olin, J. (2016, December 6). Letters to a Young Librarian: Information Literacy as Liberation.

 

What other steps can we take? 

When examining a source online, there are a few other steps you should take. It may seem complicated, but after doing them for a while, they start to become second nature: 

  • ‚ÄčCheck Credentials - Is the author specialized in the field that the article is concerned with? Does s/he currently work in that field? Check LinkedIn or do a quick Google search to see if the author can speak about he subject with authority and accuracy.
  • Read the “About Us” section. Does the resource have one? It may be on a tab at the top of the page, or a link at the bottom of the page, but all reputable websites will have some type of About Us section and will provide a  way for you to conatct them.
  • Look for Bias - does the article seem to lean toward a particular point of view? Does it link to sites, files, or images that seem to skew left or right? Biased articles may not be giving you the whole story.
  • Check the Dates - Like eggs and milk, information can have an expiration date. In many cases, use the most up-to-date information you can find.
  • Check out the Source - When an article cites sources, it's good to check them out. Sometimes, official-sounding associations are really biased think tanks or represent only a fringe view of a large group of people. If you can't find sources, read as much about the topic as you can to get a feel for what's already out there and decide for your self if the article is accurate or not.
  • Interrogate urls - We see quite a bit of domain manipulation these days. For instance, what looks like an .edu domain, followed by .co or “lo” is likely a fake or deceptive site.  If you are you seeing a slightly variant version of a well-known URL, do a little investigating.
  • Suspect the sensational - When you see something posted that looks sensational, it is even more important to be skeptical. Exaggerated and provocative headlines with excessive use of capital letters or emotional language are serious red flags.
  • Judge Hard - If what you're reading seems too good to be true, or too weird, or too reactionary, it probably is.

Ridout, B. (n.d.). Fake News: How to Fact Check. 

All the news that's fit to digitally access!

One of the biggest hurdles in finding quality news sources is that often, the tools we use the most do not do enough to discern between reliable and unreliable sources of information. While some popular sites are working to combat this problem, headlines have also been filled with major failures on the part of some of the most popular websites to contain the spread of misinformation.   

There are, however, better ways of finding information. Forsyth Library provides a variety of reliable databases for investigating News and Current Events

If you're having trouble determining the validity of a source, or need help researching quality information, remember that you can always Ask a Librarian. The librarians are Forsyth Library are Information Experts, and are available by chat, phone, email or text to help you out with any questions you may have.