We tend to think of fake news1 as a modern problem, thanks to the increased focus on fake news generated by events like the 2016 American presidential election. But the spread of misinformation is a concern that dates back much further. In 1710, Jonathan Swift wrote,2 “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”
Perhaps the problem is not so much the existence of fake news, but the increasingly efficient ways people and organisations have of disseminating falsehoods today. We’ve seen fake websites created to imitate reputable news sources—these have ranged from sophisticated efforts3, with fake URLs and designs that look like recognised news outlets, to simple hoax4 generators that rely on our tendency to skim headlines on social media.
The problems created by fake news are wide-ranging in type and severity. Democracy relies on a well-informed electorate to function well. Whatever the specific motives behind each fake news story, the cumulative effect is the erosion of civility and trust in our institutions—punctuated, sometimes, by violence5.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice already out there to help us combat fake news individually. There are also new initiatives and technologies being developed to assist us. While we wait for artificial intelligence6 or social media7 networks to develop better methods of filtering out the falsehoods, there are three simple steps we can do before clicking ‘share’ in that newsfeed article:
1. Always click through to the article
Don’t just read the headline. Examine the story, the website, and even the URL. This will help you determine if you have visited a trusted news source, and spot any fakes.
2. Find another source
Check to see if the story is corroborated elsewhere before sharing. The more widely something is reported, the more organisations have had a chance to fact-check it. Let them do the real work for you.
3. Apply the smell test
Is the story too good to be true? If so, there’s a solid chance it’s fake. Ask yourself - is there an obvious motive or benefit someone would have for generating it? Don’t let wanting to believe the story be a substitute for actually believing it.
We can hope that future innovations will go a long way to helping us solve the age-old problem of fake news. But in the meantime, we all must do our own due diligence. If you need help, your library can be a key resource to help members of your organisation identify trustworthy sources, or provide current awareness updates that have already been vetted.
What would you add to our list?
- Hunt, E. (2016) What is fake news? How to spot it and what you can do to stop it, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/18/what-is-fake-news-pizzagate
- Shapiro, F. (2011) Quotes Uncovered: How Lies Travel, Freakonomics Blog http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/07/quotes-uncovered-how-lies-travel/
- Ruddick, G. (2017) Experts sound alarm over news websites’ fake news twins, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/18/experts-sound-alarm-over-news-websites-fake-news-twins
- Don’t get fooled by these fake news sites, CBS News https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/dont-get-fooled-by-these-fake-news-sites/
- Hope, C. (2017) Fake news websites could cause another MP to be murdered, warns Cabinet minister Damian Green, The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/19/fake-news-websites-could-result-another-mp-murdered-warns-cabinet/
- Manthorpe, R. (2017) This UK startup wants to solve fake news, Wired http://www.wired.co.uk/article/fake-news-ai-factmata-fullfact
- Moon, M. (2017) Facebook’s new media guidelines are focused on stopping fake news, Engadget https://www.engadget.com/2017/10/24/facebooks-new-media-guidelines-stopping-fake-new/