In contrast to Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 observation about pornography, “we know it when we see it,” fake news is something that may be very hard to recognize.
There’s a reason so many people are confused or deceived by the information presented as fact. That’s because the way information is presented (and misrepresented) has become both more sophisticated and more convoluted. At its most basic, though, when done intentionally, the goal is simple: to confuse the public enough to make them question what they thought to be true.
Fake news is also about validating a deeply held narrative. Take, for example, Putin and the effort he’s made to not just keep people from seeing the truth, but also to validate their belief that Russia is a good country that it’s only defending itself and innocent Ukrainians are being brutalized by a Nazi regime. The tactic is very effective in case they hear something to the contrary.
When people can’t distinguish between facts and fakes, it creates confusion and misunderstanding about important and timely issues. And when people become jaded into a generalized sense that they “can’t believe anything you see/hear/read,” it intensifies polarization, messes with electoral outcomes, and undermines overall trust in legitimate news sources.
Another example can be seen in the recent news surrounding the invasion of Ukraine. “Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook are all full of ‘firsthand accounts’ and ‘threads from contacts’ and other such things. While many of them are legitimate, many, many more are not. There is old footage, deep fakes, made-up personal accounts of events, and more,” explains Sree Sreenivasan, managing director of Cronkite Pro, a global training initiative of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in his weekly newsletter. Even official government statements from Ukraine should be taken with a grain of salt, he says. “Information wars go both ways, and just because your side says something you want to hear, doesn’t make it true.”
As we wrote recently in An Introduction to Fake News, fake news can be “disinformation,” exaggerated or mistakenly presented as news — or misinformation, delivered with the intention to deceive. Either way, there are a collection of attributes that news consumers should be alert to.
An important first step is being skeptical of any claims going viral, says FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. As a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters, Factcheck.org applies journalism and scholarship to reduce the level of deception and confusion in politics by monitoring the factual accuracy of what is distributed in the media (both traditional and social).
When FactCheck.org first began warning the public in 2008, the most common red flags were excessive use of exclamation points, anonymous authors or sources, misspellings and odd use of capital letters, and in the case of chain e-mail, insistence that “This is NOT a hoax!”
Things have become more complicated since the days of emails from Nigerian princes looking for partners in investment. This is particularly true of outlets and websites that appear more professional, where the public’s level of scrutiny needs to go up a notch.
“A lot of posts that really take off tend to tap into presuppositions, appeal to somebody for example who thinks Democrats are always raising taxes. We recommend trying to check your biases. Much of this stuff plays into emotions, designed to make people angry or scared,” says Lori Robertson, managing editor of FactCheck.org. Always do a gut check before believing what you read, and definitely, before passing it on, she says. Otherwise, you’re just adding to the clickbait.
Some questions to ask of any article:
*Scrutinize the tone. Is there an angle being pushed? There’s a difference between an article that gets one fact wrong, either through shoddy or inexperienced journalism, and one that beats the drum for one viewpoint, with biased, questionable, or false sources.
*Does the source cited actually support the claim? Some official-looking sources have nothing whatsoever to do with the conclusion the article is trying to make. Linking to the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act of 2012 seems like it adds legitimacy. But it doesn’t back up a story that a candidate is, say, trying to ban prenatal vitamins or legalize cocaine.
*Check the date and circumstances of an event that’s being credited to (or blamed on) a current politician. A headline referencing something that happened years ago can suggest causality where there is none—or deny causality where there is. Some photos and videos coming out of Ukraine are being disputed by Russian officials as footage from unrelated past wars.
*Who’s the author? Are they really who their credentials say they are? John Doe might have won an impressive number of esteemed awards and literary publications. But a few keystrokes can reveal whether or not he conferred them upon himself.
*Remember to sniff for satire or parody. Some fake news is offered simply for entertainment value, like The Onion. These stories don’t attempt to deceive readers because they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Still, believe it or not, there are some people who take the Borowitz Report literally. Think before you retweet.
*Deep face videos do exist. But they aren’t generally done well enough or with credible enough material to go viral, says Robertson. Still, if you see something that seems too extraordinarily far-fetched or out of character, that might not be the horse to put your money on, even if you think you’re getting it from the horse’s mouth.
Would you like to dig deeper?
Visit our event Facts, Fake News, and the Media for an in-depth discussion between CNN+ anchor, Chris Wallace and NYT correspondent, Maggie Haberman.