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The proliferation of fake, misleading news is why students must learn media literacy

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These days, we spend so much time online that it’s no surprise that most of us get our news from social media sites – in fact, 62 percent of adults in the United States rely on social media to keep up-to-date on current events, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, with 44 percent mainly using Facebook as their source.

With so much news being shared and read through social media, it can be difficult to fact-check and validate the sources of each and every one. We often just scan the headline and click “Share” or “Retweet”.

The mushrooming of fake news sites carrying unreliable or false “information” is why Facebook is currently in hot water: in the last three months running up to the US presidential election, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets, reported Buzzfeed News.


Image via Buzzfeed News

In response to that, people have been sharing a list of websites known for disseminating incorrect or misleading information.

The list, titled “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources”, was compiled by Melissa Zimdars, an Associate Professor of Communication and Media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

However, the list has since been temporarily removed “in order for it to be transferred to and expanded on in a more permanent, dynamic, and collaborative home”.

In an interview with USA Today College, Zimdars said she had initially put together the list for her “Introduction to Mass Communication” students to teach them about media literacy, as she was “concerned” by some of the sources that students were citing in class or in their assignments.

“So many of them just Google whatever information they’re looking for,” she said.

Have you seen this list of fake news sites? https://t.co/9wmIeISRfm

The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and drove her to make the list public was after she found out that a top Google result on the election was an article from a questionable WordPress blog that used fake numbers.

“Someone told me that when you Google ‘popular vote counts’, the first Google News item that pops up is ‘70news.wordpress.com’ which is a fake website saying that Hillary Clinton lost the popular vote. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh’,” she said.

The list categorized nearly 140 sites into four labels:

  1. “Fake, false, regularly misleading sites” which rely on “outrage” using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits” (examples: Politicalo, AmericanNews.com)
  2. Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information (examples: CounsciousLifeNews.comCountdownToZeroTime.com)
  3. These websites sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions (examples: BipartisanReport.comTheFreeThoughtProject.com)
  4. Purposefully fake satire/comedy sites that can offer critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news (examples: Christwire.orgTheOnion.com)

Zimdars added that the spread of false information has been “compounded by the ease of circulation on social media”.

In light of the controversy, Google and Facebook have announced efforts to clampdown on fake news: Google has banned websites that publish fake news from using its online advertising service, while Facebook has updated the language in its policy to “explicitly” include fake news sites among those it will not display ads on.

Google has also invested US$159,000 into three UK organisations working on fact-checking projects.

Meet the professor who’s trying to help you steer clear of clickbait: https://t.co/5HYCGf13iR

Another dimension of the problem lies with confirmation bias, which Zimdars explains as: “The idea that people tend to seek out information that already aligns with their worldview. And so when they come across this kind of information, it affirms their beliefs and they’re happy.

“But when they come across information that they don’t agree with, it doesn’t actually change their beliefs – it just reaffirms the beliefs they already have. It causes them to dig in a little further.”

This leads social media users to create their own little “echo chambers”, where algorithms – based on knowledge of our interests and political leanings – will program our news feeds to only show us things that we want to see or agree with.

“Since a lot of these alternative or potentially misleading websites confirm people’s gut reactions to hunches about what’s happening in the mainstream news media, this sort of reinforces that and makes them feel validated and listened to,” said Zimdars, as quoted by the Chronicle.

So what can we do to shield ourselves from being duped by false or deceptive news? Here are some tips:

Take a close look at the website

Have a browse, take a look at the “About Us” section, the other stories published on the site, and its overall design – does it seem like a poorly-slapped together design? Does the site use of ALL CAPS? Is the site littered with spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors? These are all indicators of a questionable news source. Those with weird domain names should also put up a red flag.

Cross-check with other sites

Are other known/reputable news sites not reporting on the story? According to Zimdars, “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.” You can also use fact-checking sites such as Snopes, Factcheck.org, and PolitiFact.

Check your reaction to the story

Fake news is all about inciting a reaction, be it anger, sadness, or even laughter. If the story triggers a strong response in you, particularly anger, then Zimdars suggests that you read more 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”.

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