In our post-truth world, we're bombarded with claims of "fake news," 'hoax news," and "alternative facts." Degrees of truth and subtle differences in reporting need to be addressed through education, with the help of automated tools that can assist in identifying which elements of an article or video are false. The outcomes range from affecting only a few (fake reviews that influence purchases or restaurant dining choices) to (arguably) determining the outcome of a national election.
Distinguishing between what is false and what is based in truth requires some exploration. "Fake-ness" can exist as a hoax or as propaganda. A particular article or source could be unreliable, either accidentally or purposely, incidentally, or wholly and consistently. Librarians teaching information literacy and educators responsible for developing students' critical thinking capabilities within a discipline are well aware of the telltale signs, but few individuals apply critical thinking with rigor outside the classroom. Erroneous information can be displayed or published unwittingly and benignly, without any malicious intent--but misinformation can turn into harmful malinformation. Here are some examples:
* Unauthenticated sourcing, misattribution, and crowdsourced news can be misleading and contain biases. This can be exacerbated when video of one incident is mislabeled and circulated as "proof" of a similar act in another place, at another time, or with altered audio, aka deepfakes.
* Unsubstantiated claims and bogus claims also need to be checked and authenticated (or called out as false).
* Non-specific language can contribute to confusion, or worse.
* Information presented to compel or dissuade people from an action can thwart their true intent.
* Exaggerations to make a point, or purposely inflating or deflating numbers, can lead to poor decisions by companies or governments, as noted by ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities' Working Group on Truth, Trust and Expertise (allea.org/truth-trust-and-expertise).
* The unethical nature of purposely circulating disinformation about a competitor. In some jurisdictions, this is an illegal act.
WHEN IS SCHOLARLY RESEARCH NEWSWORTHY?
Scholarly research presents challenges to news media. Jargon and acronyms, along with technical language, can impede how complicated issues are understood by the public and policymakers. Dubious data collection methodologies and confusing statistical data presentations also affect understanding. (There's a wonderful resource to help journalists assess the newsworthiness of scientific findings and evaluate methodologies available from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. (See journalistsresource.org/tip-sheets/research/medical-studies-newsworthy-research-tips.) The Poynter Institute (poynter.org) has also published several articles about the newsworthiness of scholarly research.
Other issues affect the degree of factual information in scholarly articles. Mistakes made by authors, editors, and publishers can be corrected in publications, but these are rarely made in a timely fashion. Also, those viewing publications within aggregated databases run the risk of seeing the original text with no link to the revisions. Documents viewed online may not be from the producer's site, which carries the amended text/data, but on another site that has not been adjusted to reflect the corrections.
We hear much about evidence-based medicine and policy, but the use of evidence-based news, research, and analysis is gaining traction as well. The Retraction Watch blog (retrac tionwatch.com) publishes news about retractions of scholarly articles, most of them in the sciences.
THE TRUTH MEETS POLITICS
Political events provide a fertile ground for disinformation and misinformation. As Sukrii Oktay Kilic explains in a Poynter article, the attempt of teyit. org, a Turkish fact-checking organization, to use crowdsourcing to validate or disprove an incident during the country's latest election had mixed results, some of which were extremely disturbing (poynter. org/fact-checking/2019/this-fact-checking-site-tried-crowd sourcing-a-story-heres-what-it-learned).
For those times when you might wish to erase a statement entirely and act as if it had never happened, there are apps for that. Encrypted messaging services automatically hide text messages or make SMS messages ultra-private and secure. Examples include WhatsApp, Signal, Wire, Telegram, Wickr, and Pryvate. For politicians who believe taking down their tweets makes everything all right again, Politwoops (projects.propublica.org/politwoops) assures that these tweets never quite disappear.
Political concerns can cause rulers to act in ways that limit freedom of assembly or the press. Public diplomacy efforts may lead regime-associated publications to collaborate on messaging (e.g., radio broadcasts in Rwanda), sometimes leading to publishing state-sponsored disinformation campaigns that are reinforced through sharing on social media platforms (e.g., Facebook posts about Rohingya in Myanmar). The ruse used by autocrats to censor specific publications and/ or limit use of social media platforms in the name of "protection" is monitored by several entities:
* The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker (pressfreedomtracker. us) documents incidents that curtail the freedom of the press in the United States.
* Each year, Freedom House (freedomhouse.org/reports), an independent watchdog organization, issues a series of reports on freedom and democracy around the world, including those which address freedom of the press and freedom on the net.
* NetBlocks (netblocks.org) maps internet freedom in real time as countries restrict access to the internet/social media in response to crises or during election cycles. This independent, non-partisan civil society group conducts research on incidents of telecommunications disruptions.
WHY 'FAKE NEWS' TODAY?
It's difficult to determine the moment when the public became less interested in news and more intrigued with stories about celebrities. A whole industry now exists, built around celebrity wannabes, including digital "influencers." [For more about influencers, see the Internet Express column on p. 51.--Ed.] There have been magazines about movie stars and tabloids for nearly a century, but with the introduction of People magazine in 1974 and TV's Entertainment Tonight in 1981, entertainment news became a "thing." Supermarket tabloids have their online incarnation in satire websites; the most well-known of these is undoubtedly The Onion (theonion.com). In 2016, Stephen Abram posted "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y and Satirical 'News' Sources" that he defines as "commonly shared on facebook and other social media sites" on his Stephen's Lighthouse blog (stephenslighthouse.com/2016/ll/15/false-misleading-clickbait-y-and-satirical-news-sources).
In the 1980s, cable television gradually replaced the nightly evening news broadcast as "the" source for news 24/7, and news magazine shows shifted to network entertainment divisions in the 1990s. On cable TV, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish newscasters from commentators. Pro/con battles, in which a conservative and a liberal take two sides of an issue, became fodder for the public. To their credit, Fox and CNN have been pointing out the errors of their ways on weekly broadcasts of MediaBuzz and Reliable Sources, respectively.
The separation of news items, opinion pieces, and editorials was mirrored in print journalism as the wall between them became somewhat porous. These moves are likely a consequence of corporate entities seeking greater profits from every possible source.
ADVERTISING MODELS, BRAND TRUST, AND UNIQUE NEWS
For years, newspapers were able to keep their prices low by selling local (classified) ads. Magazine subscriptions were subsidized through big brand advertising. As advertisers shifted their focus to online (and more recently mobile), print publications raised subscriber fees while experimenting with alternative revenue-generating strategies for digital products, particularly paywalls. These publishers faced pushback from users who balked at paying for news when they had access to free news and information sources online. However, much of that news coverage is repetitive due to concentration of media ownership, the entrance of news aggregators and longer-form services requiring registration, and elaborate news-sharing arrangements that create additional revenue streams for publishers.
As news circulates online, the hallmarks and revealing signs indicating that the stories are the product of authoritative and trusted voices disappear, and differences among sites become less distinct. Fonts change, banners get stripped, and the organization of material onscreen looks much the same across sites. Vendors rely more on what gets people to remain on a site, adopting what is working on other sites. Audiences thus easily recognize where they should click next.
A site's architecture shapes what users see, making readers vulnerable to manipulation--but this is nothing new. Newspapers have long written pithy often misleading, headlines to attract readership. Television viewers can be easily distracted by breaking news banners running across the bottom of their screen. Teasers for the evening news are sensationalized to increase viewership. Digital influencers encourage the public to buy products endorsed by a "celebrity."
The rise of social media and increased use of mobile devices mean that people's reliance on both for news is all but inevitable, making the scale of this phenomenon we call "fake news" unprecedented. Technology has both enabled easy dissemination and sharing of all information--true or less than so--and monetizing news includes the gaming of it all to keep eyeballs on sites and repeatedly coming back for more. Going viral benefits some, but repetition can also reinforce and accelerate hate.
FACT-CHECKING AT THE DAWN OF THE INTERNET
Snopes (snopes.com), one of the first fact-checking sites, is a product of the pre-internet online publishing world. Snopes got its start in 1994 as the Urban Legends Reference Pages. It's now the go -to site for confirming or debunking rumors. A staff of eight fact-checkers investigates topics in which multiple people appear to be interested, discerning whether a story is true or merely a rumor. Snopes does not editorialize about an issue's coverage or acknowledge consistent errors within a publication/site. Detractors point to aless-than-analytical approach to fact-checking as a "one-off" effort, but you can view its process (snopes.com/transparency) and an explanation of its ratings (snopes.com/fact-check-ratings).
The Straight Dope (straightdope.com) has a premise similar to Snopes in that people ask "the Oracle" if something they've heard or seen is true or not. In this case, the oracle is Cecil Adams, who began a weekly column in the Chicago Reader (chi cagoreader.com) in 1973. People continue to ask Adams questions, and he tries to answer them by providing just the facts.
TruthOrFiction.com is an intriguing site "where Internet users can quickly and easily get information about eRumors, fake news, disinformation ... myths, hoaxes. ..." and so on. Founded in 1999 by a broadcaster interested in providing "Internet users with a quick and easy way to check out the accuracy of forwarded emails," TruthOrFiction coverage includes politics, fake news, viral content, and entertainment. Each story is tagged with multiple keywords to help users understand the type of work being done by TruthOrFiction (e.g., Analysis, Reporting, Disinformation, News Media, Social Media). Stories are classified to be Truth, Fiction, Reported to be Truth, Reported to be Fiction, Unproven, Truth & Fiction (meaning that "parts of a story are supported by fact, but other parts are not"), Disputed, or Pending Investigation.
HOW GOOD ARE THE FACT-CHECKERS?
The rigor of the methodology behind each effort to determine the veracity of a specific claim, article, or publication should be examined before accepting the ratings or trust scores on any fact-checking site. Getting the seal of approval by fact-checkers and organizations associated with them is an important indicator of authenticity for the public. Similarly, fact-checking sites should be held to a high standard for transparency of methodology, sources funding the effort, background of the individuals conducting the fact-checking, and degree to which technology is employed.
The Trust Project is "an international consortium of news organizations collaborating to use transparency to build a more trustworthy and trusted press" whose initial funder, Craig Newmark, was the founder of craigslist. Working with news executives, the Project "identified and designed a system of "Trust Indicators," or disclosures about the news outlet, author, and commitments behind a story, to make it easy for the public to identify the quality of news. Digital platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Bing, will be able to use machine-readable signals from the Trust Indicators to surface quality news to their users." According to the Trust Project, the hallmarks of ethically produced news are eight core indictors. (Seescu.edu/ethics/focus-areas/journalisni-ethics/programs/the-trust-project/collaborator-materials.)
In 2015, Poynter Institute launched IFCN-International Fact-Checking Network (poynter.org/ifcn) "to support a booming crop of fact-checking initiatives by promoting best practices and exchanges in this field." As some fact-checking sites are better than others, users should look for indications on fact-checking sites to see that they have signed on to IFCN's Code of Principles (ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org).
THE BEST NEWS SOURCES AGREE WITH ME
Many entities are making headway combatting "fake news," relying on education as well as the application of technology to do so. Political alignment or bias is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the reader understands how this colors reporting. Different approaches can be taken. Here are some examples:
* Believing that there are three sides to every story (left, right, and center), AllSides (allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news) presents multiple viewpoints of an event or news item rather than displaying what's most popular or results that may match a user's preferences. AllSides has analyzed nearly 600 media outlets and writers and then assigned a bias rating to each, from left, lean left, center, lean right, and right. The site contains a full description of its process and encourages its use for educational purposes.
* Media Bias/Fact Check (mediabiasfactcheck.com) allows users to filter sources based on their bias and factual reporting rating. Billing itself as "The Most Comprehensive Media Bias Resource" with more man 2,700 media sources listed in its database, Media Bias/Fact Check is searchable by source name or URL. Founded in 2015 by Dave Van Zandt, who remains the primary editor, he is "assisted by a collective of volunteers" who welcome user submissions of sources to be tracked or requests for an article fact check. The methodology used to categorize sites on the left or right of the political spectrum is available directly on the site.
As readers began relying less on scions of the press to deliver their news, it became more difficult to differentiate the liberal from conservative press. Luckily, there are resources to assist, including these:
* The Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog into corruption, maintains a list of conservative (sourcewatch.org/index.php?titie=Conservative_news_outiets) and liberal news outlets (sourcewatch.org/index.php?titie=Liberal_news_outiets).
* ThoughtCo (thoughtco.com/top-conservative-magazines-3303617) has researched online and offline publications and identified the "top 10" conservative magazines.
* For more than a decade, 2006-2017, US Politics Guide (uspoliticsguide.com/American_Political_Directory/PoliticaLMagazines.php) maintained links to forums and blogs identified as left, right, and center.
INFORMATION/MEDIA LITERACY TRAINING
In our post-truth world, it's everyone's responsibility to acquire the skills needed to evaluate claims made by government officials, medical professionals, journalists, and scholars. This must begin with critical thinking training early on.
Much information in the digital sphere can be described as problematic in very specific ways: It may be inaccurate, misleading, inappropriately attributed, or altogether fabricated. Caroline Jack and Monica Bulger of the Data & Society Research Institute have assembled a set of teaching resources, Lexicon of Lies: A Guide to Terms for Problematic Information (datasociety.net/output/lexicon-of-lies), that includes recommended readings, discussion questions, and activities for students.
The News Literacy Project (newslit.org/educators/checkology) virtual classroom is where students learn "how to effectively navigate today's challenging information landscape by mastering the core skills and concepts of news literacy. It equips students with the tools to interpret the news and information that shape their lives so they can make informed decisions about what to believe, share, and act on" as they become active members of civic society. Equally helpful is NewsWise from The Guardian newspaper (theguardian.com/newswise). Through its foundation and funding from Google, this free, cross-curricular news literacy project designed for youth 9-11 years of age also offers teacher guides, curriculum links, and additional resources.
To help students learn respect for other people's opinions while making a cogent argument for their own views on a wide range of subjects, teachers have both free and fee-based resources to consult:
* ProCon.org presents the pros and cons of controversial issues in the world/international, politics, elections and presidents, science and technology, health and medicine, sex and gender, education, entertainment and sports, and economy and taxes. There are videos to watch and a Teacher's Corner for lesson plan ideas.
* Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints (gale.com/c/opposing-viewpoints-in-context) is a fee-based resource for debaters that offers subscribers access to pro/con viewpoints, reference articles, interactive maps, and infographics covering current events, news and commentary, economics, environmental issues, and politics.
USING GAMES TO COMBAT 'FAKE'
With games being an effective way of learning new skills, it's no wonder that several take on the subject of fact-checking. Here are a few:
* The News Hero (thenewshero.org) is an online education game that lets players imagine that they are running a publishing company interested in publishing only accurate news. As with other online games, each level becomes increasingly challenging as the options multiply. The three levels teach players how to distinguish between fact and fiction.
* Bad News (BadNews.com) is a simulation game that teaches people some of the tricks used by fake news fraudsters. Created by Ruurd Oosterwoud, founder of DROG (aboutbadnews.com), in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cambridge, GetBadNews puts players into the role of editor of a fake news website so that they will be better able to distinguish between reliable information and disinformation in the real world.
* With Post Facto (postfactogame.com), the player is the fact-checker. Users read a story being shared "on social media and investigate the clues to determine if it's real or fake."
EFFORTS BY INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER LEARNING
Universities and colleges address critical thinking, including how to determine fake news, through credit-bearing courses, workshops, and assigned readings, with libraries playing a significant role. For example, the University of Michigan Libraries developed a 7-week Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda undergraduate library course (umich.instructure.com/courses/257337). Slides from a LOEX 2018 session about the course with links to the syllabus are online (sites.google.com/umich.edu/library-fake-news/home).
Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Mike Caulfield (webliteracy.pressbooks.com) is an excellent text for teaching students how to fact-check, understand syndication, spot viral content, conduct reverse-image searches, and evaluate news sources. It has other practical tools for information/media literacy courses and workshops, bolstering what many academic libraries teach and make available through LibGuides. These guides are meant to help students identify fake news, but there is no reason that they might not benefit other interested parties. Here's a sampling:
* California State University at Long Beach LIS: Fake News (csulblis.libguides.com/c.php?g=756956&p=5426903)
* Copley Library, University of San Diego: News, Spin, and Fake News (libguides.sandiego.edu/fakenews)
* Monmouth University Libraries: Media Literacy & "Fake News" (guides.monmouth.edu/media_literacy)
* Tri-County Technical College Library: Fake News and Evaluating Resources (library.tctc.edu/fake)
* Washington State University Libraries: Evaluating News: "Fake News" and Beyond (libguides.libraries.wsu.edu/c.php?g=616286&p=4287805)
Fake news has the ability to grab our attention in ways that corrections do not. We've learned that people assume that information originates from a credible source; distorted facts/inaccuracies are magnified online; and repeated exposure to misinformation can make us feel as if it must be true.
By remaining within news silos--only following individuals and exclusively engaging with groups that think like us--we create an echo chamber and hear only what reaffirms and reinforces what we already believe (confirmation bias). Sharing misinformation contributes to public discord and shuts down meaningful public discussion of extraordinarily important issues. This is only amplified through additional shares and retweets by individuals who may not even know us.
What can we do about it? Julian Matthews has some ideas, as expressed in "A Cognitive Scientist Explains Why Humans Are So Susceptible to Fake News and Misinformation" (niemanlah org/2019/04/a-cognitive-scientist-explains-why-humans-are-so-susceptible-to-fake-news-and-misinformation):
1. Read beyond the headline to be sure that you agree with the substance of the article.
2. Make sure that what you share is factual and trustworthy.
3. Purposefully seek out diversity of opinions and sources.
4. Reflect on whether a piece is news, opinion, or humor/satire.
5. Pay attention to where information is published (and who benefits).
Education in critical thinking--whether via games, coursework, or fact-checking operations--holds an antidote to the poison of deliberately false, faked, hoax information.
By Barbie E. Keiser
Barbie E. Reiser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an information resources management (IRM) consultant located in the metro Washington, D. C, area. Comments? Email the editor-in-chief (email@example.com).