How to spot fake news on social media (or anywhere else)

USA Today

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the role social media plays in modern journalism and news stories. In particular, Facebook’s under a lot of scrutiny over its role in disseminating sensationalized, biased, or outright fake news stories. A lot of these stories were anti-Clinton and/or pro-Trump. Business Insider lists 11 such stories that went viral on Facebook.

Social media’s role

Mark Zuckerberg still insists Facebook isn’t a media company. That’s despite being the company (MySpace aside) that made social media a household name.

There’s also a Pew Research Center study from last year reporting that Facebook is the top source of political news for Internet-using millennials and Gen Xers. Local TV is still the top source for Internet-using Baby Boomers.

Pew Research Center study on political news sources
Infographic by Pew Research Center.

To its credit, Facebook has announced plans (however vague) to deal with the rise of fake news stories.

Yes, social media can act as an “echo chamber.” Given my online friends have similar political and social sentiments, I’m not likely to encounter something reposted from, say, the Drudge Report or Fox News.

That said, I suspect Facebook’s use of “curated” algorithms (instead of their previous straightforward, as-is feed, similar to Twitter’s) is making fake or heavily biased news stories’ spread worse. Unfortunately, it’d be against their business interests to go back to their old model. Thus, they’re stuck trying to tweak said algorithms to make things more workable.

Of course, increased media literacy among the general public might also help. There’s a sizable number of people unable (or unwilling) to tell something obviously ridiculous is fake (such as the Pope endorsing Trump).

The problem’s not limited to social media, of course. TV can do a mediocre job at reporting news, with ratings sometimes trumping accuracy.

Tips on spotting fake news

“On the Media” is a public radio program about journalism and the media. The show airs on most NPR stations, but is produced by New York City’s WNYC. They offer this guide on how to tell fake news stories apart from real ones.

On the Media's fake news guide
Infographic by On the Media.

My advice on telling fake news is similar to the above:

  • Use common sense. (Seriously, the Pope endorsing Trump?)
  • Check the source, even if a friend shared the story.
  • If suspicious, verify the story against either a mainstream news source, Google search, or a fact-checking site. Neutral fact checking sites include FactCheck.org, Politifact, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Another option’s rumor-debunking site Snopes.
  • Follow a news source besides Facebook (or social media in general).

The above advice will be even more critical going forward. Our next president is clearly not a friend of the first amendment or quality, neutral journalism.

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