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Fake News

“Fake news” has been around for a long, long time.  It is also one facet of “library instruction” that we have been fighting for years—that most people don’t take the time to read or comprehend something.  They read what they want to read and move on to the next thing.  Very few people stop and actually think, which has been made much worse by the Internet and social media.  “Information” is coming at us too quickly.  This topic is also a facet of Evaluating Internet Information--it's not just news, but anything you find online.

When you hear the phrase "fake news", what comes to mind?  What do you think it is?  Who uses the term?  Why do you think they use it?  Is it less "fake" and more a story they would prefer you not to believe or follow?  Or a story that is deliberately misleading? One definition of fake news is "news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers" (Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, 2016).

From the BBC, January 2018, is a short article The (almost) complete history of 'fake news' (do you remember the stories they write about?  Did you believe them when you first heard of them?).

Watch the HBO documentary After truth: disinformation and the cost of fake news. (NMU login required).

How about altered video?  That is also becoming (more) common.

And what about fake "news outlets" posing as some kind of real news source?  The Lansing State Journal (which is legitimate) has a story about news outlets appearing to be local but are not.  A recent (July 13th 2020) story from NiemenLab goes into national detail, and in August 2020 here is another story from clickondetroit.  (Sensing a pattern?  Here is a story from October 1st, 2020).  They are full of political propoganda.  There is a repository on GitHub keeping track of these fake websites.  Ask yourself and others who sent you something, always, "where did you see that"?

    And what about something sent to you via social media that somehow sparks your ire or interest?  Do you bother to check anything about it?  Does anyone?  "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”--long attributed to Mark Twain but actually dates back to Jonathan Swift in 1710!

    Mike Caulfield has 4 moves to work through (SIFT) when finding or being presented with a news source: 

    1. Stop.  Ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the website is.
    2. Investigate the source.  Go upstream to the original source.  This might require one or two or more links away from your "original source".  
    3. Find better coverage.  Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article or video that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false.  Is this source biased (visit some of the links below) or making a dubious claim?  See the next point, #4.
    4. Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context.  Perhaps the reporting left something out?  Cherry picked select quotes?  
    5. And I would like to add my own twist to this list: have the patience (and care) to actually check.  Don't skim.  

    Media and Fact Checking Resources

    AllSides. Since 2012.  Focusing only on American news sources.  Rates news sources as Left, Center, and Right.  It is amusing to read the different headlines of the same news story under these different news outlets.

    Media Bias/Fact Check. Since 2015. Dedicated to educating the public on media bias and deceptive news practices.  Rates sources as Left Bias, Left-Center Bias, Least Biased, Right-Center Bias, Right Bias, Pro-Science, Conspiracy-Pseudoscience, Questionable Sources, Satire, and re-evaluates sources.  They have a list of fact-checking websites that is being reproduced below verbatim (because it's a good list):

    • PolitiFact– PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida.  PolitiFact is simply the best source for political fact checking.  Won the Pulitzer Prize.
    • FactCheck– FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.  They are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. They monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.  FactCheck is similar to Politifact in their coverage, and they provide excellent details.  The only drawback is they lack the simplicity of Politifact.
    • Open Secrets– Open Secrets is nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, run by the Center for Responsive Politics, which is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy.  Open Secrets are by far the best source for discovering where candidates get their money, and how much.  They also track lobbying groups and whom they are funding.
    • Snopes– Snopes has been the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation for a long time.  Snopes is also usually the first to report the facts.
    • The Sunlight Foundation– The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.  Sunlight primarily focuses on money’s role in politics.
    • Poynter Institute– The Poynter Institute is not a true fact checking service.  They are however a leader in distinguished journalism and produce nothing but credible and evidence based content.  If Poynter reports it, you can count on it being true.
    • FlackCheck– Headquartered at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FlackCheck.org is the political literacy companion site to the award-winning FactCheck.org. The site provides resources designed to help viewers recognize flaws in arguments in general and political ads in particular.
    • Truth or Fiction– Very similar to Snopes.  They tend to focus more on political rumors and hoaxes.
    • Hoax Slayer– Another service that debunks or validates internet rumors and hoaxes.
    • Fact Checker by the Washington Post– The Washington Post has a very clear left-center bias and this is reflected in their fact checks.  Their fact checks are excellent and sourced; however their bias is reflected in the fact that they fact check right wing claims more than left.   Otherwise the Washington Post is a good resource.

    Here is a PDF worksheet, "How to Identify Fake News in 10 Steps".  Other than for a class assignment (something you are forced to do), do you ever look this critically at a news story?

    During conversations, when your friends drop some news story in your lap  that you think, to put it kindly, “doesn’t sound right”, call them on it: ask them to source the story, as suggested earlier.  "Where did you read that?  Show me."  This could lead to a spirited conversation on the merits of where information comes from.  Or not.  They might get angry that you caught them in forwarding dubious "information".  See the piece above from Caulfield.

    In 1995, the late Carl Sagan wrote a book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  One of the chapters is The Fine Art of Baloney Detection (summarized here; the chapter itself is here).  The book and these links are well worth reading, but from that chapter comes a "baloney detection kit"--tools for skeptical thinking.

    The bottom line?  Think.  Be skeptical and have patience. Check something that sounds fishy.  You need "a shock-proof, built-in BS detector" for information, to steal a quote widely attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

    Something missing on this page?  Drop me a line at bsarjean@nmu.edu.

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