BuzzFeed reports that, on Facebook, the top 20 click-bait-y fake news stories generated more engagement than the top 20 real news stories did in the past three months.
That’s okay if you know that what you’re looking at is fake and you’re just clicking or sharing something to get a good eye roll workout. But a new study by Stanford University says that the “digital natives” amongst us – kids from middle school through college – can’t tell the difference between sponsored content and real news.
And regarding their habits on social media, the Wall Street Journal reported that “[m]any students judged the credibility of newsy tweets based on how much detail they contained or whether a large photo was attached, rather than on the source.”
Think about that – credibility is judged on whether or not there’s a pretty picture.
That’s really worrying, especially because it’s not just kids that are making that mis-judgment. The Pew Research Center reports that 66% of Facebook users get their news there, and overall nearly 40% of us get our news online now.
Facebook is just a social networking site. It’s not a news site…right?
It’s inappropriate for anyone to like an article about someone getting shot. In the case of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, research shows that stories on his death went into a cone of silence on Facebook, partly because it was inappropriate to ‘Like’ (for which read: share) and harder still (for non-trolls) to comment on. So when it comes to what gets shared more, the algorithms favor the Pope endorsing Donald Trump over what’s happening in Ferguson or Flint because of Likes.
It makes sense logically. But if 66% of people on Facebook (and let’s face it, Facebook’s market penetration is colossal) – if 66% of Facebook users are getting their news there, it’s well on its way to becoming a media company. A news distributor. Far and away from simply a social networking site.
Work vs. play
I know, as professional searchers we’re not looking on Facebook as the main source of our news (although we do use it as a resource). But we can still be fooled. We can still be click-tricked.
For those of us who gather and present information for a living, it’s critical that we have the skills to discern the trustworthiness of our sources. One lazy fact-check or reliance on a fake news story and there goes your credibility. And once you lose your cred, it’s hard to get it back. You think you will know real from fake, but (as you’ll see below) it’s not always clear cut.
Trust but verify. That goes double for information from social media. Because nobody ever exaggerated on their LinkedIn profile or their resume, right? At HBG we confirm information from at least two other sources unless we know it to be self-evidently true, and that even goes for names. Because we have been given the wrong name on occasion…(ahem)
Use sites that are known for their reliability…There are always the “Old Faithfuls” that we all know and love for being generally good at fact-checking. Major papers tend to be better at this than local papers. Big, public-company websites are generally better-managed than small, private companies. The information on larger sites has usually been written by one and edited by another. There are always exceptions, but we always start with the big names first.
…But don’t give the Old Faithfuls a bye on fact-checking. I’ve found errors in ‘reliable’ sources like Dun & Bradstreet, S&P, Directory of Directors … heck, even The New York Times and Chicago Tribune have been known to get things wrong every once in a while.
The New Hip Tech sites can get things wrong, too. While researching for this blog post I was excited to read an article in Digital Trends about a new app called Notim.press/ed (get it?) developed by a TechCrunch Disrupt London Hackathon team. Plug in the url of a news article and the app will tell you if the article’s a fake. Cool, right? Sadly, the website does nothing. Zippo. It’s a fake. Or maybe it’s just not yet ready for prime time. Either way, it was worth following the links and trying it out for myself rather than just trusting Digital Trends and passing it along to you. (Trust but verify, again).
Look Both Ways Before Crossing. If the person you’re researching is a public figure, make sure to search sources on different sides of the political spectrum to get a balanced and thorough background. The same goes for big companies, too. Mother Jones, The Times (London) and The Wall Street Journal are all going to report very differently about Apple.
Use plug-ins and fact-checkers to help you navigate. I use the Webroot Reputation Toolbar extension, which warns me about bad-guy sites when I search so at least I know if the website I’m going to has a good reputation generally. Snopes.com is the go-to site for checking out rumors, innuendo, and urban legends about people, places, and Pope stories.
When in Doubt, Leave it Out. If you find but can’t verify a piece of Information of Significance, leave it out of the report if it stands in opposition to other information you know or can confirm. If it’s something that – if true – could change your organization’s relationship with the person or company in question, then add it in, cite the source, and be sure to add a disclaimer to let people know you tried (but were unable) to find a backup source.
Just Use Your Best Judgment. Just as with everything, if it sounds too good to be true, (or too salacious to be true, in the case of fake news stories), it probably is. The days of Edward R. Murrow-style integrity and honesty in reporting are few and far between now, so we have to be more discerning end users. That’s not to say that striving for integrity in journalism doesn’t exist: ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, for example, are two of a growing number of publicly-supported organizations working in that direction.
If things continue as they have the past six months, we’re only going to become more inundated with fake news unless Facebook and Google find a solution to the problem. And there is some hope: this week Google made a move that will significantly impede fake news from showing up in search. And now that big brands are discovering that they are inadvertently funding fake news sites by placing advertising there, taking active measures to withdraw their support will make a difference, too.
And at Facebook, a ‘renegade’ group of employees (who feel the need to remain anonymous in order to avoid repercussions) recently formed to help the company get a handle on this pernicious problem.
Until there’s a solution, we’re going to have to wade through this sloggy mess, making decisions about what’s real and what’s true. Be discerning. Don’t blindly trust everything you read. Verify. If you can do those things, you will be the resource that everyone can trust.
For further reading
NPR: A Finder’s Guide to Facts, by Steve Inskeep. http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts
Pew Research Institute: Many Americans Believe Fake news Is Sowing Confusion, by Michael Barthel, Amy Mitchell and Jesse Holcomb. http://www.journalism.org/2016/12/15/many-americans-believe-fake-news-is-sowing-confusion/
Pew Research Institute: The Modern News Consumer; News attitudes and practices in the digital era. by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Elisa Shearer. http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/the-modern-news-consumer/
Pew Research Institute: News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016, by Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer. http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
The Verge: The author of The Filter Bubble on how fake news is eroding trust in journalism by Casey Newton. http://www.theverge.com/2016/11/16/13653026/filter-bubble-facebook-election-eli-pariser-interview
The Wall Street Journal: Most Students Don’t Know When News Is Fake, Stanford Study Finds. http://www.wsj.com/articles/most-students-dont-know-when-news-is-fake-stanford-study-finds-1479752576
The Wall Street Journal: Fake News Sites Inadvertently Funded By Big Brands. http://www.wsj.com/articles/fake-news-sites-inadvertently-funded-by-big-brands-1481193004