A few weeks before the 2016 presidential election I was forwarded an email with a link to a “news” report published on “The Boston Tribune” website. According to the article, then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s mother was to receive a $160,000-a-year government pension for helping care for her granddaughters while living in the White House. To many, this report was a perfect example of excessive government spending and the unchecked power of our leaders. There was only one problem: The article was unequivocally false and, quite frankly, absurd.
Even though I imagine most folks, like me, had never heard of “The Boston Tribune,” it is easy to see how some people would believe it was a regular news website posting a legitimate story. For instance, the story included links to government websites and sources and looked like a regular online news story. However, those sources, as pointed out by many legitimate news organizations and fact-checking watchdog groups, were for generic government websites, such as the government’s FOIA request website and another site about the pension system for federal employees who entered service before 1987. In other words, neither source had any relevancy to the claims the article made.
That article was my first exposure to the rise of fake news that became a dominant issue in the last presidential election. Fake news stories such as an article claiming Donald Trump was hiding the fact that he had suffered a heart attack during the campaign and that Hillary Clinton was leading a child-abuse ring run out of a pizza parlor were read, believed and spread by hundreds of thousands of people, and in some cases millions, through email and social media sites. Many have argued these fake news reports helped sway votes.
Since the inauguration, fake news has continued to make real news. In just the few weeks since taking his oath of office, President Trump has referenced or alleged at least 21 times on Twitter that there have been “fake news” reports about him. The president also alleged that his predecessor wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower, an allegation that The Washington Post has tracked to a number of factually baseless articles about the wiretapping claim.
Who is Behind Fake News?
While the term may be new, fake news has been around for a while. For instance, historians have argued that fake news almost cost Abraham Lincoln the 1864 election after one of his main political opponents, a group called the Copperheads, published a number of fictitious stories saying that Lincoln was of mixed race and that he had a secret government plan to intermarry white and black people to create an “American Race.” After the Civil War newspapers also spread fake news to increase revenue. Yellow Journalism, as it was called, would sensationalize and grossly exaggerate stories to sell more papers. Such reporting is widely considered to have been a contributing factor leading to the Spanish-American War, which has been referred to as the first “media war.”
As in the past, both politics and money seem to be behind the recent rise in fake news. However, technology and online ad revenue has made it easier than ever to spread this news and to generate large amounts of cash with each click of the mouse. In an NPR story from last year, the reporting team tracked down a fake news writer who ran a site called the “Denver Guardian.” According to the writer, he could clear up to $30,000 a month in ad revenue from his site.
Challenges Beyond Politics
While the consequences of fake news in a presidential election are obvious, we also encounter misinformation and potentially fake news and media in the day-to-day work we do for our clients. I have recently come across online articles that make allegations against high-profile executives or sports agents for professional athletes that at first appear to be legitimate but which, upon further research, are clearly untrue. In one instance a local news article claimed that a CEO had laid off many of the workers at his company yet had recently been seen driving a new sports car. Upon further review, I discovered that not only had there been no layoffs, but the CEO also owned a very modest car. In such cases, it is often obvious to us that the writer may have a bone to pick with the subject or simply might think the story will generate enough clicks to get him or her a nice check at the end of the month. However, many other people might read the article and believe it is accurate and base a decision on that information.
How to Tell Real News from Fake News
One of the main reasons so many people will believe a fake news story is because it looks legitimate. However, upon close examination, it often becomes clear that an article is fake. For example, that “Boston Tribune” article I read was littered with grammatical errors and was clearly biased, referring to former President Obama as “The worst president of all time.”
For less obvious examples of fake news, there are other ways to verify their validity. I personally like to monitor watchdog sites such as FactCheck.Org and PolitiFact.com, which annotate sources and independently research claims. Also useful is the following information recently posted by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. These guidelines can also help with those less high profile instances, such as the example of the CEO that I gave:
- Consider the source: Click away from the story to investigate the site, its mission and contact info.
- Read beyond the headline: Headlines can be outrageous to get clicks. What’s the whole story?
- Check the author: Do a quick search on the author. Is he or she credible? Is he or she real?
- Supporting sources: Click on those links. Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
- Check the date: Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
- Is it a joke: Is it too outlandish? It might be satire. Research the site and author to be sure.
- Check your biases: Consider whether your own beliefs could affect your judgment.
- Ask the experts: Ask a librarian, or consult a fact-checking site.
So regardless if you’re just scanning through your Facebook news feed or conducting a due diligence investigation, remember to closely check the sources to make sure the “news” you’re reading is really the news.