In part one and two of this series, we discussed strategies for conversing with individuals that hold views that differ from scientific consensus. These individuals often base their views on false information, so in part three of this series, we distinguished between different types of journalism that spread disinformation and misinformation, and examined why the spread of “alternative facts” feels so prevalent right now. In this last post of our series, we detail how people are combating the spread of fake news and low-quality journalism, and how individuals can personally stop the spread of false information.

Institutions spearhead the fight against fake news and false information. 

Many people have blamed Facebook and Google for the spread of fake news, claiming that their lack of content moderation and use of search algorithms that favor clickbait over credible sources has allowed fake news to easily propagate (NY Times). In response, both companies stated they would no longer allow fake news sites to use their advertisement services (NY Times, Fox News). Unfortunately, it will be difficult to eliminate fake news entirely. For instance, both sites have long relied on computer algorithms to monitor site content, and fear that human editors, which would be better at spotting fake news, could introduce human biases and partisanship (Washington Post). Solving this problem will not be simple, but Facebook, in collaboration with professional fact-checkers, recently released computer algorithms that may be able to recognize fake news and warn people before they share it (NPR, The Guardian).

Fake news and other problems in the media (discussed in Part 3) are both the cause and effect of increasing distrust in mainstream media sources (Gallup, Pew Research Center, Atlantic). If the media wants to regain trust and credibility, it will require a combination of solutions, including, but not limited to: improved public media literacy, thorough fact-checking and debunking of lies, decreased partisanship, and greater representation of disparate viewpoints (Forbes, Columbia Journalism Review, Daily Wire). Therefore, a mix of companies, teachers, news agencies, and individuals have taken it upon themselves to address each of these problems. Facebook, along with other tech giants, academics, and nonprofit organizations, recently created the News Integrity Initiative, an agency that aims to address the lack of media literacy education (CNET, Columbia Journalism Review). Some K-12 teachers have already implemented media literacy classes in their schools (NPR). Moreover, news agencies have begun to fact-check statements made to the media (e.g. live fact-checking of candidates during the Presidential debate [Politico]) and by the media (Austin American-Statesman). In an effort to help readers who may not be able to recognize when news is fake or biased, some startups and magazines have created apps that flag articles from suspicious or untrustworthy sites (Mashable, Slate), though they are not allowed on all websites (Inverse). Another alternative is to reduce bias in reporting by converting commercial media companies into nonprofits, as suggested by French economist Julia Cage (Saving the Media). However, many have argued that her proposed business model is unfeasible, citing the lack of successful nonprofit media outlets (Forbes, Medium, New York Times, Evening Standard).

You can help stop the spread of false information.

No matter the efforts of fact-checkers, fake news apps, or media education, people still choose to share articles from untrustworthy news sources. This is why we need to accept personal responsibility for the news we absorb and choose to share with others. Here we have summarized expert advice (sources below) on how you can personally avoid the spread of false information:

  • Do not share an article you have not read. Period. 
  • Fact check articles that you read. Some tips on how to do this:
    • Ask the following questions:
      • Who is the author?
      • Are the author’s claims based on fact?
      • What sources are given for specific claims?
      • Are those sources credible?
      • Is this source biased, and how might that bias skew this story?
      • How might my own biases skew my interpretation of this article?
      • Are there other articles that claim the opposite of this article?
    • Just because an article is the top hit on a search engine does not mean that the article is credible or that the source is reputable. Currently, many search engine algorithms order search results by website popularity or how well-suited a website is for your interests (How Stuff Works). See these sites for possible questions to ask yourself when determining if a source is credible: Columbia College; Purdue.
    • Fact-checking websites can provide assistance with fact-checking certain issues (e.g. Snopes, Politifact, Factcheck.org). These websites hire researchers and reporters to look into potentially falsifiable claims, and find evidence for whether those claims are indeed true or false. Additionally, they follow a strict code of conduct to remain objective in their fact-checking.
    • Beware of the backfire effect (see Part 1). Are you only looking for facts and sources that fit into what you already know? More information on some related issues with fact-checking:
      • Challenges facing fact-checkers (Poynter Institute).
      • When individuals fact check a news story, it can backfire (Techdirt).
      • When fact-checkers fact check a news story, it can also backfire (Washington Post).
  • Make your newsfeed more ‘cross-cutting’ (Wired, NPR). Read from sources you would not normally read from. Studies show that Democrats and Republicans use and trust different news sources (Pew Research Center). To be responsible media consumers, we need to be aware of the potential biases of our own favorite sources of news in addition to the biases of others. Often, facts can be found where sources with opposing views converge.
  • Avoid clickbait. Websites that use sensationalist headlines to attract users often make money by getting people to click on their headlines, links, and videos. Not all clickbait is fake news, but fake and hyperpartisan news sites use provocative headlines to garner clicks that can generate more ad revenue (Engadget; Washington Post). Be wary if an article makes you feel angry, panicked, sad, or riled up just from reading the title or first few sentences of the article; these are signs this article is clickbait, and mean that the article is more likely to contain falsehoods.

    XKCD comic by Randall Munroe.

You can read more tips and learn more about fact-checking by reading the additional resources listed below. Additionally, we would love to hear any tips you may have for avoiding fake news and alternative facts, and/or opinions on solutions for larger problems related to trust, technology, and the media.

Emma Dietrich, Caitlin Friesen, Rebecca Tarvin, and Julia York contributed to this post, which is the last in a four-part series called How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences. You can read part one, “Why More Information Isn’t Enough” here, part two, “Having Empathetic Conversations” here, and part three, “The Rise of Fake News and Misinformation”, here.


Additional Resources

  • How to self-check (NPR).

  • Harvard Library guide to fake news.

  • Assistant Professor of Communications at Merrimack College, Melissa Zimdars, created a list of tips for avoiding fake news, AND an extensive list of websites to be wary of (note: not all of the websites on the list are fake) Zimdars’ advice.

  • Factcheck.org tips for spotting fake news.

  • CNN tips for spotting fake news.

  • Snopes’ list of major fake news sites.

  • The New Yorker’s chief fact-checker on what his job requires (Columbia Journalism Review).

  • To stop the spread of false information, some argue that we need a better understanding of why people share news (Fortune).

  • In December 2016, the Morning Consult conducted a poll of 1,605 adults living in America. These data show which news outlets Americans find credible and trustworthy in addition to how often individuals are aware of being exposed to fake news stories. For instance, 24% of the poll-takers responded that individuals are most responsible for stopping the spread of fake news, while 17% choose social media outlets like Facebook, and 20% were unsure. (The Hill).

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