President-elect Donald Trump’s presumptive electoral victory has led many individuals and organizations, including media outlets, to speculate whether the proliferation of fake news shared online during the campaign season made an impact on voters’ decisions.
A report just last week was topping Google searches, stating that Donald Trump won the popular vote, when, in fact, recent numbers show Hillary Clinton leading. Other “news” websites have, at various points, posted articles on their Facebook pages claiming Megyn Kelly and George H.W. Bush were voting for Clinton (unverified), or made incorrect statements claiming Putin’s online troll factory was responsible for rigging online polls to show Trump won the first debate.
The conversation surrounding the issue has grown to such an extent that the nonprofit, nonpartisan global policy think tank RAND hosted a forum on the matter, discussing the “erosion of truth.”
“When everyone has their own facts, then nobody really has any facts at all, and our democracy grinds to a halt,” said Michael Rich, president and CEO of RAND Corporation. “Polarization inflamed by truth decay is the gravest threat facing America.”
— RAND Corporation (@RANDCorporation) November 13, 2016
Facebook and Google recently announced they are taking steps to keep ads off of fake news sites. But that doesn’t discount the disturbing trend toward sensationalized news, or downplay any role it may have played in the election, for either side.
“Ninety-five percent of Trump people do not trust the media at all,” said Trump supporter Mark O’Bannon at Trump headquarters in Long Beach in the week leading to the election. “Education—colleges and universities are left-wing and they breed people who are left-wing.”
Other residents the Post spoke to said they may read the news, but that doesn’t mean they believe it—despite centrist news organizations like CNN, Politico and ABC News maintaining a 94.8 percent truth rating in a recent BuzzFeed News study.
The analysis of hyper-partisan web pages concluded that, in contrast, three large left-wing pages published false or misleading information in nearly 20 percent of posts, while the three big right-wing Facebook pages published it 38 percent of the time.
Screenshot of BuzzFeed News report.
It also surmised that attracting the most clicks arrived not by basing stories on fact, but by creating hyper-partisan stories that played to partisan biases, confirming what the reader wanted to hear. Moreover, the researchers found that the more they frequented hyper-partisan sites, the more often posts from the Facebook pages appeared in their news feed, essentially creating a stronger echo chamber of opinions, based on questionable “facts.”
“The most interesting thing is that after a few days of fact-checking right-wing pages, my Google results started skewing to right-wing sites,” said one team member in the BuzzFeed report.
In fact, completely alternate realities can be made by “liking” Facebook sites and clicking on their news, heightened by Facebook’s new algorithm, launched in early 2015, regarding news feeds.
In a 2014 announcement, Facebook officials stated “Our goal with News Feed has always been to show people the things they want to see. When people see content that’s relevant to them, they’re more likely to be engaged with News Feed, including stories from businesses.”
In response to the recent awareness of fake news, Merrimack College Assistant Professor Melissa Zimdars created a list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y and Satirical ‘News’ Sources,” cautioning the reader that not all of the pieces posted on the sites are mostly lies, but maintaining that many consistently do not provide appropriate context, or are often misleading in their presentation of facts. Or, in the cases of satire, some people click without realizing what they are reading was created for purposes of humor.
Such websites include Breitbart, MSNBC.com, MegynKelly.us, the Onion (satire), the Borowitz Report (satire), Newsmax.com, Infowars.com, Occupy Democrats, Project Veritas, The Blaze and Endingthefed.com.
For the full list, click here.
The website also contains tips for analyzing the veracity of news sources:
- Avoid websites that end in “lo” ex: Newslo (above). These sites take pieces of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).
- Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources
- Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
- Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
- Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.
- Some news organizations are also letting bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not go through the same editing process (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs).
- Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or Wikipedia for more information about the source.
- Bad web design and use of ALL CAPS can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources.
- If the story makes you REALLY ANGRY it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
- It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames. Some sources not yet included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing important, legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.
With the growing awareness of fake news and the recent actions taken by Google and Facebook to mitigate the issue, one can hope that more will take care in selecting their news sources.
For, as The Washington Post’s Executive Editor Martin Baron told the New York Times, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?”