The buzzword right now—highjacked by all sides—is “fake news.” The phrase is being run through the political hyperbole machine with the power knob at maximum.
But what is it?
Well, first off, fake news is nothing new.
Ever read a tabloid? They quote “sources” on who got together with whom, who just broke up, who’s having a baby, Elvis sightings—with utter disregard for annoying details like “facts”—and they can be extremely damaging when used to discredit people in the public eye.
However, there is a relatively new breed of fake news that is a trending topic in the news.
And “trending” has been part of the problem.
Fake news is simply that—fake, a lie.
Fake news often comes from a website that specializes in manufacturing fictitious news stories. They are either made up whole cloth or have just enough real data to be convincing. They look like real news stories; people believe them—AND THEY SHARE THEM. That is where things get messier, because they trend on Facebook and other social media and they appear in Google search results.
“The tremendous power of newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and modern ‘mass media’ communication is guided by the PRs of special interests and they guide with lies.
“Thus PR is corrupted to ‘a technique of lying convincingly.’”
“The more lies you use in PR the more likely it is that the PR will recoil.
“Thus the law:
“NEVER USE LIES IN PR.”
Since we’re inundated by political stories, let’s cite something else to ease the tension:
Google “Fred Rogers Navy Seal” and you get over 200,000 results. An urban legend (i.e., fake news) circulated that Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers, the late children’s television personality, was a former Navy Seal sniper in the Vietnam War with 25 confirmed kills, able to disarm and take life in a heartbeat; after the war, he renounced violence and always wore long sleeves to cover up his Special Forces tattoos.
The fact that it was made up didn’t stop thousands from believing it and sharing the “information” about Mr. Rogers, his deadly hands and infamous cardigans.1
But look a little further and we find a less amusing scene. We see a machine—or more than one machine, serving multiple sides—right out of the propaganda playbook.
Stanford’s Graduate School of Education spent a year analyzing how well or poorly American students evaluate online sources of information.2
Over 7,800 students in 12 states were asked to evaluate information presented in articles, tweets and comments.
The researchers were “shocked” by the “stunning and dismaying consistency” in the responses.
“Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there,” says the report. “Our work shows the opposite.” They weren’t looking for high-level data analysis, but a “reasonable bar” of telling fake accounts from real ones, biased sources from neutral reports.
Hundreds of middle schoolers were shown a Slate home page that included news articles and a paid story marked “sponsored content.” More than 80 percent believed the sponsored content was a neutral news story.
High schoolers were shown two posts, one from Fox News and one from a fake Fox News site: 75 percent couldn’t tell the difference, while 30 percent argued that the fake site was more trustworthy.
College students were asked to evaluate a sensitive tweet quoting a poll. Only a few noted if the poll was conducted by a professional polling firm, and more than half failed to click on the link to determine its veracity.
In an independent investigation, NPR tracked down the proprietor of a fake news site to his home in a Los Angeles suburb, eventually being granted an interview.3
“The whole idea from the start was to build a site that could infiltrate the echo chambers . . . , publish blatantly false or fictional stories and then be able to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they were fiction,” said the site’s owner. He also alluded to making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month through advertising on his site.
In a bizarre meta-twist, this man was evidently making bank through a site that proliferates fake news—with the sole intention of proving that people believe fake news.
Recently, Google reported that it kicked two hundred publishers off its AdSense network, partly in response to the proliferation of fake news sites.4
Facebook, meanwhile, announced an algorithm modification wherein topics will only show as “trending” that have been covered by a significant number of “credible” publishers.5
The purveyors of fake news are experiencing a serious recoil. Why? Because lies wither in the harsh light of truth. But a significant cross section of a generation can’t seem to tell the difference between real and imagined.
Enabling our youth—and anyone—to think for themselves and evaluate data is clearly an imperative undertaking for our future generations.
By Prosperity Editor
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