The Reality of Fake News

It’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot recently – fake news. The battle between conservative and liberal ideologies extends beyond the political spectrum and spills over into other public and social domains; namely, the mainstream media. In the politically charged culture of 2017 America, conspiracies, accusations, and scandals abound in popular and mainstream news media – but how much of it is true?

In a review of the issues surrounding fake news, whether political, ideological, or otherwise, I have come to some conclusions about how fake news impacts consumers’ views about politics, social justice, and other pertinent issues. The role of media literacy in decoding and debunking fake news has also come to my attention.

The American Ideal

The idea that success is achieved through hard work and claiming responsibility for our own lives is a cornerstone of American society. As Americans, we are accountable for what we say, what we do, and whether we succeed in the economic, social, and political spheres. We “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Along with the many civil freedoms our constitution grants us comes the great responsibility of being the masters of our own destinies.

We are expected to make well-informed decisions about our education, our housing, our finances, our health, and many other personal and social choices typical Americans face in their lifetime. Following this thread, it is reasonable to assume that when it comes to media consumption, most people have the means and the ability to sift through the various news outlets for legitimate reporting and verifiable information. This is the idea of media literacy. So if people can sort out the fake news stories from the real news stories, why has fake news become so prominent?

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Danah Boyd, a researcher of technology and society at New York University, argues that labeling fake news as such does little to remedy its widespread influence. In her article, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?,” Boyd touches on the reasons why simply putting “fake” into a news headline won’t help to create a media literate society in the true sense of the phrase.

The problem here is that even when a story is deemed fake, there are larger societal implications to account for in understanding consumer habits. Especially now, news media is very politically partial. It is hard to find a news source that gives a rounded picture of any issue because of political influences on these sources.

People tend to be very set in their ways and it is difficult to dissuade people of something they have been bred into. Boyd emphasizes the cultural context in which fake news is framed; that is, she challenges this American ideal of personal responsibility by considering the influence of partisan politics on news media. Even if a story is debunked and labeled as fake, there will still be people out there who refuse to reject these stories based on their own personal and political ideologies.

Mainstream Media and the Political Landscape

During times of political unrest or change, such as the current American climate, it is important to understand how the media influences and is influenced by politics. It seems almost impossible nowadays to find objective reporting. We find either conservative or liberal news stories undermining the opposite’s viewpoint. Through my review of the fake news issue, I’ve compiled a few ideas highlighting the salient concerns surrounding fake news:

Illegitimate Real News vs. “Real” Fake News – Because the mainstream media is so politically segregated, with some overtly supporting conservatives and others backing liberals, the stories that matter tend to be washed over or completely ignored in the interest of politics. Worse yet, the news stories produced by one source are continually undermined by another opposing source. In this way, even real news stories about real events can be distorted and “delegitimized,” as professor of history at Princeton University David Bell puts it.

As Bell writes in an article in The Nation, “Reports in the mainstream media will be denounced as part of a nefarious plot by liberals to destroy the administration (and, by extension, America), and could well intensify Trump’s support.” In this instance, Bell is referring directly to the current battle between the left and right of the political spectrum under the Trump administration. So, this “delegitimization” of real news should be contrasted with “real” fake news – stories that are completely fabricated to evoke public outcry or to advance political agendas.

Who Reports News Matters – Politics are present in the news media today perhaps more than ever before. In the wake of the 2016 election, it seems the entire country is being urged to choose a side, including news stations. When a news story hits the air, it is often very easy to detect which stance the reporting network takes on the issue. We often hear of claims and accusations of reporters taking quotes out of context, leaving important information out, or otherwise trying to sway the audience one way or another.

Depending on where the audience stands, consumers will accept or reject these claims and the original news story based on where they heard it. David Bell argues that who reports the story matters more than the content of the story because viewers develop loyalty to the stations that report things they agree with and ignore stations that report stories they oppose, regardless of the truth of the story.

To combat the influx of fake news in American news media, we must begin by changing our consumption habits. It is often hard to set aside our own beliefs, ideologies, and passions, but taking an objective stance on news stories will help to weed out the distorted and misleading. Reading news stories from a neutral perspective can be an effective way of finding the fault in so many of the stories we read every day.

Detecting Fake News

With such a divided and arguably corrupted news media climate, what can we as consumers do to curb the growth and proliferation of fake news?

First, it’s important to work towards media literacy – the ability to analyze and decode the messages in media content to discover truth. This goes along with our “American ideal” of taking responsibility for informing ourselves about the world.

Second, we can train ourselves to be skeptical of what we read. In the modern age of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others, it can be tempting to only read headlines without digging deeper into these stories. Taking such stories at face value without further inspection contributes to the spread of fake news, as people often read something that excites or angers them and share it with followers without looking more in depth.

Finally, we can take advice from the experts. Wynne Davis of National Public Radio gives some tips in her article “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check The News and Get The Facts.” Another great resource for learning how to check news stories is Melissa Zimdars’ “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources,” a document with an extensive list of websites that produce some kind of fake news.

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Compiling these two sources, I’ve made a list of things to watch for below:

  • URL – sites with URL “.com.co” tend to mimic real news sources but distort information to mislead consumers. Always check the URL. Below are two sites that look very similar, but upon further inspection, the real news source can be easily identified.
  • Web Design – does the website look poorly put together, contain text all in capital letters, or crowded by lots of obscure ads? If so, this is a good indication to double check the facts it presents.
  • About Us – get into the habit of reading the “About Us” page on websites that report news stories. Knowing the mission and intent of the organization can help you determine its credibility. Check out the sites below. One gives a vague description of topics the source covers, but nothing about their motives or mission. The other doesn’t even have an About Us section, a huge red flag (Zimdars has labeled 21st Century Wire with a conspiracy tag. Check out her page to learn more about tags).
  • Affective Response – when a news story evokes a strong emotional response, especially anger or contempt, it’s a good idea to read into the topic a little more. Often, stories are distorted or misleading to produce such a response. The website listed below has two separate subheadings labeled “Muslims” and “Christian.” Even without reading any of the stories the website’s intent and bias are clear.
  • Find Multiple Sources – it is always a good idea to read about a topic from multiple sources. Finding different viewpoints on the same issue can help create a more accurate picture of an event than simply reading about it on one news source.

Fake news is spreading quickly and its crucial to know how to detect it. Becoming media literate is a great step towards rejecting and condemning fake news for its malicious nature. The news media is highly politicized, creating opportunities for corruption and pushing of political agendas through emotionally charged, misleading, and sometimes altogether false news stories. Use the resources above to train yourself how to recognize fake news and encourage those around you to do so as well. When we have a clear picture of our world, it is easier to create solutions to the many problems we face.

For more fake news analysis tips, visit Zimdars’ page.

 

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