I don’t tweet. And I’m not on Instagram, Snapchat or Pinterest. But I do check the social media site Facebook two or three times a week to catch up on news regarding my Facebook friends, people I know and care about.
Facebook has allowed me to stay up to date with family members and current friends and also to connect with former co-workers, old school chums and former friends, many of whom live long distances away.
I’ve read their good news and shared their joys. I’ve read their bad news and shared their sadness. Facebook, for example, is how I learned that a former co-worker was dying of cancer. I don’t particularly care about their political views, rants etc.
While visiting Facebook, I was surprised last year to read a so-called “news” story in the Trending Topics area of the site. It contained some astonishing information about a nationally known public figure.
The headline was outlandish, so I clicked on it out of curiosity to see the story. The story was even more preposterous and had been posted by a source I’d never heard of. Trusted media were not reporting the same information, and I wondered how could someone could get by with putting out this disinformation.
I had stumbled upon what is being called fake news.
Fake news websites, according to Wikipedia, “deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news — often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.”
“I think it’s gone beyond that now,” says Alan Sivell, who teaches journalism at St. Ambrose.
“Everybody’s talking about fake news, and it was a phenomenon during the election,” says Sivell, a former TV and radio newscaster who also wrote a media-related newspaper column. “After the election, it’s gone from (being) fake news to any news you don’t agree with is fake. To me, that’s an even bigger problem.”
Some people denigrate the news media, he notes. “(And) if you shake confidence in the news media, people don’t believe anything – even when it is true.”
Facebook, Google and others have been taking steps to curb the number of fake news articles on their sites. But fake news still exists. NBC news recently reported that a fake front page of the Vatican’s official newspaper had been sent to cardinals and bishops by an anonymous source. NBC says it was part of what appears to be an ongoing campaign to undermine Pope Francis.
Says NBC: “The page, obtained by NBC News, purports to be the front of Osservatore Romano and contains a spoof interview with the 80-year-old pontiff…. “In the imaginary interview, the pope addresses a controversial request from four cardinals to clarify his position on whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion. The pope supposedly answers ‘yes and no’ to the same question — casting doubt over whether he has a clear view on the issue.”
Sivell mentions fake news writer Cameron Harris, 23, who lives in Maryland, graduated from college last May and needed money.
“He set up a website and was putting up fake news about the election because he found that that got lots of clicks.”
Sivell says people getting lots of traffic on their site will get an email from Google’s AdSense, which will “put ads on your site, and if people click on it, you make money.”
He says Harris, a former college quarterback and fraternity leader, did a fake story about ballot boxes being found in Ohio before the election containing ballots already filled out for Hillary Clinton. Harris even found a photograph on the Internet of a man with a lot of ballot boxes and posted that with his story.
“Harris made thousands and thousands of dollars,” Sivell says.
Sivell also mentions some teenagers in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia who realized they could get lots of clicks if they posted stories about Trump or Clinton. “So they were affecting our elections with that stuff.”
Sivell says Harris and people like him should be punished but he doesn’t know how to do it — other than shaming them — because of freedom of speech.
They are lying to the public, not just telling a lie to their family or friends, Sivell says. He says he considers what Harris did as being unpatriotic and un-American.
How can we spot a fake news story?
Says Sivell: “If you immediately agree with it…then you should back off. If you immediately believe it’s wrong, back off.” He says the truth is probably not as bad as you suspect or as good as you suspect.
He also says fake news stories often appear on websites we’ve never heard of. When you come across a story you question, “look at several well-known sources. You may be conservative and not like the New York Times, but they’ve got thousands of reporters reporting. You may be liberal and not like the Wall Street Journal, but they’ve got thousands of reporters reporting. These are legitimate news sources.”
Sivell also notes that fake news really is not new. “If you go back into the early days of the country, they had the partisan press. Each side was pushing their own agenda and calling out the other side in lies…. They weren’t doing it for profit, they were doing for political power.”
My wife, Sherry, also reminds me of those supermarket tabloids with prosperous stories about actors and others that some people believe.
What can we do to stop the spread of fake news?
Share responsibly, writes Elle Hunt in theguardian.com.
“Much as it might depress you to think in such terms, you are an influencer within your own social network: put in the legwork…and only post or share stories you know to be true, from sources you know to be responsible.
“You can help shape the media you want, too. Withhold ‘hate-clicking’ on stories you know are designed to make you angry. Pay for journalism you value.”
Copyright 2017 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge Iowa.