Fake News: How to Tell What’s Real and What Isn’t


Following the election, mainstream media and social media websites like Facebook have been waging a war against fake news – and it has some serious implications for the news you’ll be exposed to. Watch this video on Fake News to learn more.

A lot of attention has been focused on fake news following the election. Perhaps you’ve noticed if you’ve been on Facebook not only the fake news itself but all the articles about Facebook that are now circulating. Or maybe you don’t use Facebook and just haven’t noticed at all. Either way I’m going to update you today with a primer of what’s going on with fake news, where we stand about it today, and what’s being done about fake news that might affect the way that you consume content.

Perhaps you’ve seen fake news stories like this one saying that CNN aired porn for half an hour instead of playing Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. This was reported by multiple news outlets including respectable ones all based on the tweet of a single Twitter user. And if you think this is bad, what about examples that come from completely fake news sites? In fact there’s an entire cottage industry of fake news to the point that websites are actually making lists of them. People have demanded that this be addressed from websites like this that are curating list of fake websites to help keep people informed, down to places like Google withdrawing ad revenue from these websites to stop them from being perpetuated, as well as calls to Facebook to start filtering out fake news. But let’s take a look at some of the problems that this causes.

Here’s an example from The Daily Dot and it focuses on a list that was created by Melissa Zimdars who’s a professor at Merrimack College. Now this professor “compiled a list of ‘fake, false, or regularly misleading websites” that purposefully published fake information or are otherwise entirely unreliable. The list, which has since been removed due to threats and harassment Zimdar says she received, also included sites that “may circulate misleading and or potentially unreliable information” or “sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions.” Now this sounds great, but are you seeing a problem here yet?

“Websites that sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions” are now being considered fake? We’re watching all of this news on social media; in fact that’s the root of the problem, is that it’s being spread on social media and not traditional media where it’s typically more tightly guarded. So if anything has a clickbait-y headline – which is what works on social media – is now suddenly being called fake, that can be a little bit of a problem, especially when the focus is on “social media descriptions.” What exactly does that mean?

Well let’s take a closer look. The types of websites compiled on her list fell into four categories, with category one being a list of fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on outrage by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information; category 2 being some websites on this list may circulate misleading and or potentially unreliable information; category 3 is other websites on this list sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions; and Category 4, which is other sources on this list that are purposefully fake with the intent of satire or comedy.

Now what I find interesting is some of the websites that made it onto this list and the categories they were included under, for example take a look at InfoWars. Now a lot of people have an opinion on InfoWars, however I’ve looked at some of the content myself and I personally don’t consider it fake; I consider it highly partisan but not fake. Yet it’s listed under categories one and two, with category one being a list of “fake false or regularly misleading.”

Meanwhile, I consider this list misleading. I also think that it doesn’t take enough care to distinguish some very subtle points. For example you see Drudge Report listed on here. Now Drudge Report is an extremely reliable website, however if you take a closer look you see it’s “DrudgeReport.com.co” and this is a typical tactic that these fake news websites use in order to impersonate a real website. Now here’s the real drudgereport.com website and here’s the fake drudgereport.com.co website. When you go directly to the website they look quite different, however when you’re following a link from Facebook and you look at the bottom and you see it says drudgereport.com.co, it immediately on first impression looks as though it’s legitimate, which is also the problem with how it’s listed in this report, where somebody who’s just looking at the list quickly might see drudgereport.com, not really noticed the dot co and just assume that now Drudge Report is category one, “fake, false, or misleading.”

Now while this is addressed, it’s addressed further down in the article which isn’t really very helpful for most viewers which tend to just take a quick look.

What I find even more concerning is the outlets that are reporting on these fake news websites are traditional news websites which can be using this to get rid of potential competitors. So for example now I’m looking at usnews.com and as you take a look at their list they have all these fake websites. Once again you have InfoWars here listed as propaganda. But who’s to say that Info Wars is propaganda and US News isn’t?

Isn’t there a point where it’s just a matter of perspective? But still the outcry from the public, or that we assume is from the public — who knows if it’s really being manufactured by major media since they’re the ones perpetuating the story? — but I do think that some of it is coming from the public as well, the outcry is now, “What can we do about this? I can’t solve this problem, can somebody else solve it for me?”

In comes Google and Facebook; Facebook in particular being the most notorious for this during the election where it was accused of providing biased news coverage in people’s news feeds as well as blatantly fake news, which Mark Zuckerberg at first denied, but now Facebook is starting to address. There were even rumors that rogue facebook employees were trying to take it upon themselves to fix the situation because they considered it so serious. So here we have an announcement from Google where they said that their advertising tools will soon be close to websites that promote fake news a policy that could cut off revenue streams for publications that pedal hoaxes on platforms like Facebook. So in other words on Facebook itself you might have a link or an ad for the website that was paid for with Facebook’s advertising tools, but when you click through to that website they won’t be able to make ad revenue from Google adsense. But does that really get to the root of the problem?

Even if you can trust Google to accurately filter out these websites, you can see right in the next sentence that it says the decision comes at a critical time for the tech industry whose key players have come under fire for not taking necessary steps to prevent fake news from proliferating across the web during the 2016 us election. So here we have a deeper problem – this was happening during the election. These people might not care if they were making adsense revenue or any revenue from what they were doing if their goal was really to more nefariously try to undermine the election. There are plenty of people who really wanted their candidates to win who would have done that for free.

This also doesn’t address how Google handles these links in search results, as we can see in an article from the New York Times: Google did not escape the glare with critics saying the company gave too much prominence to false news stories on Sunday. It was reported that the top result on google search for final election vote count 2016 was a link to a story on a website called 70 news that wrongly stated that Mr. Trump who won the electoral college was ahead of his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. So in other words, we had google promoting a false result as its first result in search saying that Trump was ahead of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.

And for what it’s worth after Google said it would not allow these “hoax websites” – again, to be determined – to use its ad tools, Facebook followed suit hours later. Facebook updated the language in the Facebook Audience Network Policy, which already says it will not display ads in sites that show misleading or illegal content, to include fake news sites. Now what’s interesting is, going back to these lists of fake websites, you have RedState listed here and they do have a rebuttal on their website with their own side of coverage. Now red state was grouped into the category of websites that use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions, which frankly I’m not sure really belongs on this list for reasons I discussed earlier (just because you use a catchy headline does not mean that the news within the article is fake). RedState’s retort included the fact that “Isn’t it funny that BuzzFeed – the originators of clickbait headlines – are not on this?” And I think that’s a fair point. Even more interesting are lists published by sites like the Washington Post, saying that “Russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news during the election.” And if you didn’t think a list of banned ideologies was similar enough to McCarthy yet, the parallels become even clearer.

What I find especially interesting is the top comment on that page. I don’t know about you but I love reading comments because it lets me put a finger on the pulse of public opinion, so this top comment to me was particularly interesting when it says: “The main practitioners of fake news are CNN, MSNBC, Fox, the news divisions of the broadcasting networks, THIS NEWSPAPER, the New York Times and other major print sources, and online publications.” So here you have public sentiment switching the other way, which is saying even these main news outlets are fake or peddling their own agenda. So you can start see where this becomes pretty complicated.

Where is the demand for proof? Where is the demand for evidence backing these claims? Seems that society just doesn’t seem to care anymore, and it doesn’t help when our very own president elect makes tweets like this tweet, saying, “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Where’s a link with some proof on that? You can’t just say things like that. But apparently that’s what’s acceptable now, and these are the scary standards that the public is not only holding our government to, but our top corporations and now even social media.

So let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. There’s no denying that fake news is a problem, but as with all problems the trouble is in finding the solution, and what’s most scary to me is the direction the solutions are heading in.

First there’s the problem that everything has a bias. Looking at what I’ve covered today you can see the categories where the solutions fall. First people are looking to big corporations to resolve this. “Hey Facebook, hey Google, you have too much power on social media to let this go uncontested, you have to do something about this!” So then the response of Facebook and Google is taking the more capitalistic approach, which is to try to hit people where it hurts in the wallet. But based on these false news websites’ intentions, that might not be enough to make a difference. If your intent is to sabotage the election you might do that for no money at all because you’re working towards a much greater purpose. And how about the fact that even if you think fake news is wrong and is a problem that needs to be addressed, who’s to say that those are the companies that should do it? Do you really trust Google’s judgment over your own? Do you trust Facebook’s judgment over your own? Because right now the biggest check and balance that people have to traditional media is going online to the internet and trying to find independent media from which they can form their own opinions, but how do you find that independent media if not through search engines that are the gateway to the internet like Google? And for most people it doesn’t even get as far as going to Google; they just look at news their friends are sharing from Facebook because they inherently trust their social network, even though they probably shouldn’t.

Then moving away from Google and Facebook you have traditional news media trying to condemn social media, and the problem there is pretty apparent: they’re both competitors. And while traditional media and traditional news sources may have our best interests at heart, they also may not; they are, after all, also in existence to make money. And their competitors, especially as they continue to grow, are taking away a piece of that pie. And then you have independent professors who you would think would do a great job of this, being oriented towards academia, but as we could see from that one list by the professor at Merrimack University that is also not always the case because at the end of the day it’s a matter of opinion.

So my question is, why are we looking to other people to solve this problem when we can solve it ourselves?

When news sites blacklist alternative news sites, who’s to say what’s *too* alternative? Where do you draw the line on what gets blacklisted? When do you start blacklisting satire and criticism? When does it start to go too far?

It’s a little scary to me just how much power we are willing to give away to other people or corporations in order to solve our problems for us. At what point do you stop looking at Facebook and Google and news websites and academia to solve the problem for you, and at what point do you look to the public and decide that maybe it’s that the public needs to be better educated? That when they see these fake news sites they can do the common-sense check. You stop and look at the answer and you ask yourself, does this make sense or does this seem wrong to me? And use common sense to be like, “That doesn’t seem quite right yet?” People don’t seem to do that on social media. The more inflammatory something is the more likely it is that somebody will click that share button without thinking it through first, and when it comes to the way we consume information this is a very big problem.

Thankfully the solution is a fairly simple one although it does require some initiative, which is that we need to educate ourselves, and perhaps sharing this video will help you educate your social network so we could see less of these fake news stories. Because at the end of the day who’s to determine whether or not news is fake? Do we want corporations to decide that for us or do we want to decide for ourselves?

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