If you are someone like me who usually keep up with current affairs through online surfing, the chances are that you have heard of the term “fake news”. It is a phrase that cannot help but imply connotations of a threat or a social ill.
Fake! But why?
Put simply, a fake news “fake” in the sense that it forms its core content with conspiracy theories, unconfirmed sources, hoax, extreme propaganda and so on. It is referred to as fake “news” as it disguises itself as a form of authentic news.
How it spreads
Generating advertisement revenue through “click-baiting” is its main motive (“Thirteen-year-old kid hires two Halo-playing hookers with his dad’s credit card”), followed by the bogus attempts to advance political agendas (“Thousands of Muslim crowd cheered on the streets on 9/11!”). Its circulation can often be traced back to angry or shocked readers who share them through social media.
The biggest problem is that people do believe them! The recent examples that were either addressed by the mainstream media or received top hits on Facebook include the Pope’s alleged support of Trump’s campaign, mysterious deaths of Clinton family’s political opponents, and the inappropriate transactions between the FBI director and Clinton Foundation.
Fake material such as these cause mass-misinformation, distort public opinion and hurt our democracy. As mentioned before, its influence even infiltrates reputable mass-media.
The good news is that the problem is now being “conceptualized” and “controversialized”. Despite the havoc, the audience is being made aware that there is a rise of non-fact checked materials, that they do appear somewhat legitimate, and most importantly, that mass-misinformation do hurt them in the issues that matter (e.g. 2016 election). Just like the tale of “The Lying Shepherd”, when people realize that the credibility of an awful lot of online information is more or less the same as a word of mouth, and that click-baiting titles do nothing but waste their time (and sometimes money!), they will soon realize not to trust everything they see on the internet even if they are masked with a pseudo-news article cover.
Upon losing on all three fronts – credibility, readership and advertisement revenue, the influence of fake news will gradually subside from the mainstream media. Yet, the question remains, what can we do to ensure this?
EDUCATION & Culture
The professional method of fact-checking should be widely known by the majority of avid web-surfers. The danger of fake news and mass-misinformation should be made aware through the mainstream media as well as the relevant course materials in college campuses.
We also need a significant advance in promoting digital (internet) literacy. Considering that the struggling communities and senior citizens do play a significant role in our public opinion, it needs to be ensured that their input is founded upon facts rather than bogus-rhetoric.
With equal importance, the process of fact-checking should be grounded within our culture of discourse. When colorful claims that lack proof are quoted by a commentator in a news program, he or she usually gets bombarded with requests of evidence. When such culture is no longer simply considered as journalistic professionalism, but also one’s maturity and reliability, the influence of fake news will soon diminish. When such culture becomes a social norm, perhaps a momentum can be obtained by professional search-engine apps (e.g. add-on apps on Chrome) that can numerically measure an article’s reliability.
How to Start
While we wait for such apps and culture to become prevalent, these are some basic tips for fact-checking as well as bogus-websites notorious for their promotion of fake material.
1. Check the domain and URL. Be alert when you see minor variations such as “.com.co”.
2. View the sites’ “about us” sections and check their disclaimers. Read about the core-purpose of a website. Avenues of extreme propaganda and conspiracy are often identifiable here.
3. Analyze the source. Google the quotes that are used and learn their context. Cross-reference their claims with multiple other sources.
4. Examine the rhetoric. Reputable sources usually follow appropriate format such as APA. Does the writer lean on extreme or exotic adjectives?
5. How does it look? Unreliable websites usually have a poor design. Observe its web-design, quality of the images used and so on.
For a more extensive guidance on detecting and dismissing fake material, refer to a comprehensive guide put together by Melissa Zimdar, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.