Fight fake news plague by reading the newspaper

Attempts to spread fake news have existed as long as newspapers have. Yet suddenly, “fake news” has become a dastardly buzz word, causing newfound serious concern, triggering debate and criticism as if it’s something new.

Since the Nov. 8 general election, Facebook and other forms of social media have come under fire for failing to rein in reports of fake news and propaganda now even being blamed for swaying the presidential election.

According to a new study released Tuesday, researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education took 18 months to determine that young people — including our nation’s brightest college students — were easily duped when it came to evaluating trustworthiness and accuracy of information they found online and on social media.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the report. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Really? It took an 18-month study to determine that?

The fact is, people believe what they read.

That’s why legacy media — like reputable newspapers — have fought the spread of fake news for generations. Here at the Tribune Chronicle we work hard to combat it by independently verifying sources, fact checking and balancing news stories with sources offering opposing views. We sometimes have to fend off unfortunate attempts by troublemakers who apparently think it’s funny to offer fake information in the form of press releases, letters and, yes, even false obituaries.

Online sites and social media posts don’t always offer such verification of facts.

Since the election and heavy criticisms for allowing “fake news,” Facebook took a step to clarify its advertising policy, emphasizing it won’t display ads on sites that run information that is “illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake news.” The company said it was merely making explicit a policy that was already implied.

The move followed a similar step by Google one day earlier, after the search giant acknowledged it had let a false article about the election results slip into its list of recommended news stories.

The Associated Press reported some have expressed concern over Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation and racist memes largely associated with the alt-right, according to The New York Times and BuzzFeed. Some have reportedly formed an unofficial task force to investigate the role the company played in the election.

Still, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists Facebook remains a neutral technology platform where its users can share anything they want, with only a tiny fraction of it fake or problematic.

Last week, Zuckerberg called the idea that voters might have been influenced by what they saw on Facebook — fake, uber-partisan stories, such as a false one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump for president — “pretty crazy.”

Rather, openness of the web has made it incredibly easy to buy a URL, post anything you want — fact or fiction — and spread it almost at the speed of light via social media.

David Chavern, president and CEO of News Media Alliance, a coalition of about 2,000 North American news organizations, recently described it well:

“The algorithms of Facebook and Google lack the human editorial element to decide when a story is false. Mark Zuckerberg said that ‘identifying the truth is complicated.’ But somehow journalists have managed to be the purveyors of truth for centuries. By eliminating the humanity from the ‘trending stories’ sections, Facebook opened itself up to the fake news problem. I recommend Facebook boosts news from established sources, instead of only promoting popular, viral, unverified headlines.”

Chavern is right. Relying on legacy news sources is the best way to fight the fake news plague. After all, we’ve been fighting it for generations.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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