Last updateWed, 13 Dec 2017 8am


Avoiding the Fallout of Fake News

Fallout of Fake NewsEver since “fake news” became a talking point of the recent presidential election, the topic seems to be increasingly prevalent in the media and on the political stage.

According to the BBC, fake news is marked by dubious sourcing, vague details, a lack of reports on the topic, and a lack of clearly sourced evidence.

Dubious sourcing can mean one of two things - firstly, it can be a news source that one has never heard of before, or it can be very closely named after a real source, in the hopes of tricking readers into believing it is a legitimate source. This was the case with the Christian Times Newspaper, which was a false publication used as a source in a fake news story. In reality, the organization does not exist, but was easily confused with the legitimate newspaper Christian Times, according to the BBC.

“I recently fell for an instance of fake news myself,” said Marina Vujnovic, Ph.D., an associate communication professor. “I believe that sometimes it’s not easy to tell right away fake news from real news. However, fake news usually appears on less credible news sites or distributors of news such as Facebook, or on news aggregation sites such as Yahoo News. They are often distributed via e-mails as well. In my experience, fake news is hyper-sensational and often not well written.”

Vague details and a lack of reports on the topic are also characteristics of fake news. The information sourced can be entirely made up, or it can be exaggerated details of something that has already gone viral.

One such story was published by fake news sites including the Boston Outlet, the Denver Guardian, and the Christian Times Newspaper, claiming that a zoo in China was about to name a gorilla Harambe McHarambeface. The story brought together two viral memes of the year - the widespread Harambe meme, and the amusing story of a public vote by the British Antarctic Survey to name a new vessel, with the winning name being Boaty McBoatface.

However, while some fake news stories can be lighthearted and even amusing in their ridiculousness, false news also has more far-reaching ramifications.

“Using fake news leads to misunderstandings and inappropriate responses to public needs,” said Tom Navalance, a junior political science student. “Policies could be made following fake information that as a result impact society negatively. It could also manipulates the mindset of the people and their opinions.”

“Democracies are reliant on the input of their citizens,” said Kevin Dooley, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science. “It’s important that citizens remain informed. Thus, fake news poses a serious problem to the core of democratic life. If people are not educated to the reality of life, they are less likely to make informed choices.”

Dooley went on to explain that a reliance on fake news can make people more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, which are designed to convince their audience of the dangers of government, instead of the necessary role that the government plays.

While he does not believe that the use of fake news could have affected the recent election, it is clear that fake news does convince readers and could affect the real world, as seen in “Pizzagate” - an elaborate fake news story claiming that a child sexual slavery ring was being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza shop and other local eateries, catering to the D.C. elite, specifically members of the Democratic Party. The story was later debunked by local police, the New York Times, Fox News, and snopes.com.

The website that publicized the story had all of the hallmarks of fake news. The story is written with an incredible emotional focus, and the facts are practically nonexistent - it claims that the information has been gathered via hacking website Anonymous, and that is the only source offered. The connections and ‘facts’ that the writer uses to tell the story are tenuously linked at best, but were still able to convince a reader - who arrived at the pizza shop in question with an AR-15 rifle and allegedly fired three shots.

While there is more awareness of fake news now than there was previously, they are still prevalent and widely shared. Vujnovic recommends reading sources carefully, and says that by going to traditional news sources one can avoid some of the problems of fake news.

However, these stories also may have mistakes, and even reputable sites like CNN have reported stories that are found to be fake news.

“I think there is still a lot of good reporting out there,” she said. “It is pretty clear which news organizations pander to certain political groups. The problem actually lies in the news consumer. Do we want non-biased news? Research has shown that people don’t like their positions to be challenged, and tend to consume news that is directly aligned with their worldview.”

She recommends looking at traditional news sources, such as NPR, PBS, the BBC, the New York Times, and other similar sources. Dooley recommended looking at sources such as the Economist and Financial Times.

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