A Journalist’s Perspective on Fake News

Who is Perpetuating Fake News?

The truth has always been important, especially when talking about politics. Since a lot of politicians like to spin the truth to fit their agenda, often spouting partially false statements, it is the media’s job to keep them in check.

In recent years, websites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact have sprung up to check statements made by politicians in real-time, and their cause has been joined by traditional media conglomerates such as NPR, NBC, and  The Washington Post, who all have sections dedicated to fact checking.  

photo: Buzzfeed

However, it hasn’t been enough to stop people from believing false information when it is spread, and I don’t think that it has been able to combat the rise of fake news, either. Much of this is due to the fact that fake news is usually circulated on social media, a sphere that fact-checking organizations do not dominate.

On social media, FactCheck.org has 726k likes on Facebook and 170k followers on Twitter, and PolitiFact has 691k likes and 470k followers. In comparison, Occupy Democrats, a self-described “grassroots political organization/news website,” has 4.7 million likes on Facebook. They even have a blue “verified” checkmark by their name, which I think is an interesting choice and it begs the question of what it takes to get verification.

And as a “media organization,” why does Occupy Democrats have one? Not everything they post is true. In fact, PolitiFact has found multiple statements made by Occupy Democrats that check out as completely false. Of course, Occupy Democrats isn’t the only proponent of misinformation. Other pages, like Freedom Daily and Right Wing News, are also part of the problem, each having their own strong social media presence. 

The Impact of Fake News

The biggest problem with these hyper-partisan pages is the amount of followers they have accumulated. More followers means more shares and retweets, and thus, a larger number of people view the information that is given. And, according to data taken by Buzzfeed from partisan Facebook pages like the ones above, “the more overtly partisan, misleading, or opinion-driven a post was, the more engagement the post would see.”

Widespread use of the internet has allowed news to be viewed by many faster than ever.

Paradoxically, while the internet makes fact checking much easier, it seems that fake news is more rampant than ever. This is because it is very easy to spread false information to an incredibly large audience using social media. By the time fake news picks up steam, any fact checking is irrelevant, as millions have already seen the fake news. Additionally, most people don’t stop to fact check before spreading misinformation. This is evidenced by the comparison of partisan page likes and follows versus those of fact checking organizations.

photo: Gallup

The shift towards blatantly partisan “news” pages from real news outlets is partially due to the fact that Americans have a difficult time trusting mainstream media. According to one Gallup Poll, only 32% of Americans trust the news media “a great deal” to deliver the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.”

To deal with this, people have moved towards getting their news from very partisan pages and websites, because they feel like those pages are the only ones who tell the truth as they see it. People tend to enjoy news that confirms their own anecdotal experiences, and thusly feel justified in their beliefs because of that news. Similarly, news which doesn’t align with one’s personal experiences and beliefs is easily brushed off as propaganda from “the other side.”

Clearly, someone who likes Occupy Democrats on Facebook won’t also like the Right Wing News Facebook page. However, a major issue in today’s news media is that the same can be said about mainstream sources. Someone who gets their news from FOX News is probably unlikely to listen to NPR as an additional source.

photo: Buzzfeed

I believe that this is a big problem. While one is right to be skeptical of the Facebook pages, there is really no reason to not trust mainstream media that has a slight bias in one direction or the other. The graph at left, from Buzzfeed News, shows that mainstream media reported content that was mostly true 94.8% of the time, with no statements classified as “mostly false.”

In fact, it seems that the issue people have with news is the 4.5% of non-factual, opinionated content that they happen to disagree with. Obviously, it is good to take in the opinion of both sides, but that is besides the point. Instead, it seems that people tend to prefer their news to have more statements that are classified as “mostly false,” as long as the non-factual content fits their viewpoint.

One Possible Solution

It has already been suggested that fake news may have had an impact on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election. So how do we put a stop to this widespread and harmful problem?

Many people have proposed different solutions about how to deal with fake news, and I think some of them miss the point. Asking the average social media user to be more critical of the content they spread and consume is a tough sell. Most people believe in fake news because they want to believe in it, and don’t like to get information from sources other than their usual ones.

I think that in order to begin solving this complex problem, mainstream media companies need to band together. While their opinions don’t always line up, these mainstream and partisan outlets need to support each other in this fight, otherwise they won’t have enough support. Because most fake news is spread on social media, mainstream media companies need to offer rebuttals through reply tweets and comments on fake news postings. Having FOX News reply to a fake news posting with an “actually, this is false” comment would undermine fake news and stop its effectiveness as is spreads. Additionally, having multiple news companies with different partisan biases respond to the same fake news posting would boost each company’s credibility with the general public while simultaneously reducing the number of people from both sides of the aisle who believe in the hoax.

Fake news is a very difficult problem, and one that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution. However, I believe that in an era characterized by reliance on the internet to deliver news, as well as hyper-partisanship, mainstream media companies must join together to combat the spread of fake news at its source on sites like Facebook and Twitter. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the news Americans receive is real, and right now, only mainstream media companies can ensure this. While this is not a full on solution to the problem, it is a start, and something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

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