In the last two weeks of the presidential campaign, fake news garnered more audience engagement than real news, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed, the news site. A study by Stanford University concludes that most young people can’t spot fake news. And pundits bemoan the decline of a citizenry suddenly unable or unwilling to sort fact from fiction.
The problem with this chest-beating is that humans have long preferred a well-told lie to an unvarnished truth. In 1900, Mark Twain wrote that Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, “ . . . found truth astir on earth and gave it wings; but untruth also was abroad, and it was supplied with a double pair of wings.”
The ongoing global communications revolution is just as disruptive as the one Gutenberg’s printing press unleashed 500 years ago. That revolution altered power relationships around the world, but it and subsequent advances like radio and television largely left the power to publish in the hands of corporations, interest groups, governments and wealthy individuals.
The current revolution has given the power to publish to anyone with a computer or a smartphone. Before Gutenberg’s invention, there was no need for most people to read or write. Before today’s revolution, reading and writing were givens, but that analog literacy is not sufficient to meet four information literacy challenges of the digital era:
- The sheer amount of information that flows daily.
- The preference for speed over accuracy.
- The ease of counterfeiting news.
- Our preference for information that supports our beliefs.
The last challenge is the most dangerous. The problem isn’t that a majority of people can’t spot fake news; it’s the appeal of information that agrees with our worldview. At Stony Brook University, we have taught 10,000 students in eight years to improve their ability to spot information that seems too good to be true, and to recognize their reluctance to accept information that conflicts with their predispositions.
Fake news sews uncertainty and disquiet in society. Just look at the renewed spread of childhood diseases in the wake of the anti-vaccination movement. Here are seven ways to spot fake news and break the cycle created when we uncritically share it:
1. Stop! How do you know it is true? What’s the evidence? Remember, the more outrageous the story, the higher the bar should be before you trust or share anything on social media.
2. Check whether the story actually supports the headline, and beware of headlines all in capital letters.
3. Always ask, “Says who?” We tell children not to take candy from strangers. Well, don’t take information from strangers. Who is responsible for the story? Is it a known journalist or news outlet? If not, how many friends, followers does the source have? What have they posted in the past?
4. If you follow a link to a website, do all the links seen there work? What does the “About Us” page say? When was the information updated?
5. Check whether fact-checking websites such as Snopes.com or FactCheck.org have investigated the information, or just type the claim into a Google search and add the word “hoax.”
6. Cut and paste images into reverse search engines like TinEye.com. Startling images often are not fake, but rather have appeared before in a different context.
7. Beware of stories that come from people you trust — even from your friends and relatives. Don’t confuse the sender with the source of the information.
The latest communications revolution has been a tremendous force for good because it has put the power to publish in the hands of everyone. But remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in “Spiderman”: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The power to stop fake news exists in all of us.
Richard Hornik, a former editor and correspondent for Time magazine, teaches news literacy at Stony Brook University.