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Telling fact from fiction on social media

The Facebook logo.

The Facebook logo. Credit: AP / Matt Rourke

Whenever I get notified that I have been tagged in a Facebook post, there’s always another notification that my grandma already liked it. If my friends have a picture of me on their Facebook profiles, you can bet she interacted with it. I love my grandma, but this behavior worries me.

I know she will be this supportive of anything I post — even if I’m wrong. But she and other social media users need to be vigilant. According to The American Press Institute, social media users are more likely to trust information in an article shared online based on who shared it, rather than the original source. This is not really a big deal if we are only talking about cat videos that your aunt or uncle decides to share from your page. But it is serious when it comes to news.

About 67 percent of American adults get their news from a social media platform, according to Pew Research Center. When such a large part of the population regards the information online as the truth, a fake news article could mislead the masses into believing almost anything. On Election Day in 2016, The New York Times reported that a tweet, seemingly from a CNN Politics account, reported false exit poll data in Florida. The website claimed to be a news source, but it falsely reported a promise of amnesty by presidential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for immigrants in the United States illegally who voted for her. These spread online, influencing people who regarded them as factual.

Not all hope is lost, however, provided that you don’t automatically trust every source on Facebook or Twitter claiming to produce news. Now anyone with a computer and decent amount of technological know-how can create a website that resembles a trustworthy news outlet. CBS News reported about a website that was extremely similar to ABC News that posted articles that were false. The format and logo bore a strong semblance to the legitimate outlet, but if readers looked closely, they would see the logo is forged and the web address included additional letters. Readers must be skeptical of what they see, always alert about a story’s sources, verification, and independence.

Readers must:

  • Determine authenticity. Ascertain whether the post can be verified through direct evidence, such as video or audio clips, legal documents or witness accounts.
  • Establish independence. Figure out whether the article is free of any sort of self-interest.
  • Look for brand logos or disclaimers of paid posts. If, for example, you see the words “SPONSORED BY” on an article, you’ve found native advertising — ads that masquerade as news reports. In such cases, you can be sure that the creator is interested in promoting a product or service rather than informing the public about important issues, and that this is not journalism.
  • Check who’s behind the work. Verify whether those who published the material hold themselves accountable. Check for bylines, an “about us” page on the website, and other evidence that the journalists have taken responsibility for their news reporting, such as corrections of past errors.

I want to make sure I only share the best journalism. The most accurate articles rely on information that comes from reliable sources. The best sources are independent from self-interest, corroborated by others, authoritative and informed about the topic, and are identified in the article. Sources may not be perfect; they might have to speak to reporters under the guise of anonymity for fear of safety risks, but that does not completely discount their validity.

Whether your loving internet stalker is your grandmother, your father, or just that PTA mother who knows everyone and comments on everything, they trust you to share information that they can trust. Nowadays, it can be difficult to distinguish trustworthy information out of the vastness of internet. If you can be a force that stops the spread of this content, you can make it easier for others to get the truth.

After all, you wouldn’t lie to your grandmother, right?

Duffy Zimmerman is a first-year journalism major at Stony Brook University.