Fake News: Real? Or Just an Alternative Fact?

Fake news: Nowadays, we hear this term everywhere, be it from friends, from late-night talk show hosts or from our president’s own Twitter handle. To a casual observer, fake news is proliferating now more than ever, and it’s all anyone can talk about.

In reality, though, fake news has been around as long as “real” news has — dating all the way back to the 1400s. But given the takeoff of social media platforms paired with the heightened accessibility of information all across the internet, it’s no surprise the reach of fake news has extended beyond belief.

The Fake News Phenomenon

So, what even is fake news, and how are we so sure that social media is playing a role in its circulation? In recent decades, fake news — news that appears legitimate but in fact has no basis in reality — has made the jump from false newspapers and tabloids to the internet and social media. We see it in our timelines and “trending” feeds every day, and it’s not always obvious to the eye. These strategically deceiving false-reports have become so widely accessible that often our ideas or perceptions about major events are really shaped by falsehoods.

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Facebook has struggled significantly with combating fake news. (Credit: McAleer)

This widespread nature of fake news can, in-part, be blamed on social media’s downfalls. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 44 percent of Americans obtain at least some of their news from Facebook.

Some of the top false stories this past year circulated all over Facebook, like an article falsely claiming an anti-ISIS rally was held in the Middle East on the same day as the Women’s March, but that news media intentionally did not cover it. Other examples? There was the time everyone thought the producers of “A Dog’s Purpose” were abusing their canine actors due to a false report, and then the time a tweet spun out of control and became an unverified news story that even the then-president-elect fell for.

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That’s what scares me the most: anyone can fall for fake news and no one is 100% immune. Just about everyone (myself included) has momentarily believed false information before digging around for the facts. Often fake news is small enough that its circulation doesn’t affect too many people’s perception of reality. But when it does? That’s frightening. Especially when amongst those falling for it is the leader of the free world.

So why, then, are people so willing to latch onto misinformation? Andie Tucher, a historian and journalism professor at Columbia University, attributes this inclination to believe a false report on social media to a feeling of trust and wonder with the story. Readers see news stories originating on social media as being “more magical, more interesting or even more authoritative because it seems more unmediated,” Tucher told the Los Angeles Times.

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(Credit: Gold Lasso)

How to Be a Truth-Wielding Skeptic

So: we know that fake news is widespread, it’s incredibly accessible, and even our world leaders are falling for it. Scared yet? If so, not to worry: there are things you can do to combat this unfortunate reality!

  • First, take steps to heighten your vigilance of misinformation. Utilize this comprehensive list of conspiracy and fake news organizations; download this (beta-stage) Slate plugin to recognize fake news; and check out these tips from NPR for debunking fake news.
  • Frequent websites like PolitiFact.org and Snopes.com — these sites regularly fact-check the news and widely-circulated stories and rumors.
  • Call out your friends, family members and governmental leaders when they spread fake news. This can be awkward and uncomfortable, but you’ve got to do it anyway.
  • When you do fall for fake news, correct your information, and do so quickly.

It is everyone’s responsibility to combat fake news. And it all begins with us, the consumers. Let’s do this.

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(Feature Image Credit: Doremi / Shutterstock.com)

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