Fake News: How to figure out if what you’re reading is real

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social media site would crack down on fake news after suggestions that it might have influenced the US presidential election. /Cnet


Whether you believe that fake news had an impact on the results of the US presidential election or not, there’s no denying that  the subject is running rampant on social media.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder, chairman, and CEO of Facebook, acknowledged the questions people had about what Facebook’s responsibility for the sharing of fake news might be.

Zuckerberg said that he believes 99 per cent of what people share on Facebook is real. He says that makes it “extremely unlikely” that the sharing of fake news on the social media platform had an effect significant enough to change the results of the election.

Fake news has now become a political catch phrase. During the transition from President Obama to President Trump, stories were shared by major news organizations that may or may not have been real about President Trump. President Trump certainly did not think they were, denied them categorically, and called out those news outlets for publishing stories he considered to be unsubstantiated personal attacks on his character.

“@CNN is in a total meltdown with their FAKE NEWS because their ratings are tanking since election and their credibility will soon be gone!…Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by “Intelligence” even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days,” said President Trump in a series of tweets on January 13.

On January 12, Trump also tweeted “We had a great News Conference at Trump Tower today. A couple of FAKE NEWS organizations were there but the people truly get what’s going on,” which was likely in reference to CNN and Buzzfeed, who Trump refused to take questions from. This definition though, does not mean fake news. Many news outlets have suggested that the President is now using the phrase Fake News to call out journalists he doesn’t think should have been shared or with which he does not agree. President Trump’s associates have also used the phrase “alternative facts” in reference to unsupported and incorrect information spoken by the President himself, rather than using their own phrase of “fake news.”

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said in November that figuring out what is true and what is not is more complicated than it seems.

“While some hoaxes can be completely debunked,” said Zuckerberg, “a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted.”

While you may not be able to tell with 100 per cent accuracy which news presented to you is real or fake, there are some steps you can take to help you make an informed decision about what to share and what to ignore.

First, take a look at where you’re getting your news from. A Facebook friend writing a text post might not be the best source of information. Reputable web sites tend to be run by newspapers, televisions news stations, and news radio stations. Some major online news sites also exist, like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed News, though some question the reliability of news sites like these that publish exclusively online. Trained journalists and major daily newspapers employ stringent fact checking techniques — though some things do fall through the cracks— and in that way they do their best to make sure what they’re reporting is true and accurate. Of course, the website it’s posted on, despite those techniques, does not guarantee the veracity of news stories. A few more steps can help make sure.

Next, check the story for sources. Who is quoted in the article and from where did the author get their statistics? Statistics should come from a reputable source, such as a government statistics organization like Statistics Canada. If the article concerns a study or a report, check out where that report came from. Major universities require researchers to go through a review process before publishing stories. Other sources for studies include those funded by major corporations. It’s important to know what interest those companies might have had in the results of those studies so you can see how the researchers might have been influenced.

Next you have to check for bias. While all the information in the story might be true, that doesn’t mean it’s written in a way that presents the facts accurately. While most journalists strive for the elimination of bias and to present all sides of a story, it doesn’t always happen. Some media outlets are openly biased in one political direction or another, and some journalists are the same way. It’s important to know the bias of your media source so you know how their reporting might, even subconsciously, be swayed in one direction or another.

The most important thing people can do to stop the spread of fake news is to read before you share and take the above steps to ensure you’re only sharing the truth. The New York Times looked back at the spread of a viral tweet containing incorrect information as it passed from its originator, an account called @erictucker. The Times reported that at the time of the original tweet— which contained photos of what Tucker claimed were tour buses full of paid protesters being brought into Austin for a demonstration against President Trump — the @erictucker Twitter account had only 40 followers. However, the post ended up being shared over 16,000 times on Twitter and over 350,000 times on Facebook.

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