What is fake news?
It seems everywhere you look these days, there is another story about the proliferation of fake news on the Internet. Fake news can take on many forms and, through social media, spread like wildfire thus blurring facts and truth with opinions or lies. As information professionals with graduate degrees in Information Science, librarians deal with the evaluation, collection, protection, retrieval and use of information every day. We care deeply about this issue as it goes directly to the heart of what we do. Although librarians cannot control the quality of information on the Internet, we can assist you with learning how to evaluate online sources.
Although fake news is most commonly associated with political stories, at its most broad definition, it can be any story that intends to dupe readers. There are numerous misleading articles on the Internet about healthcare and consumer information too – headlines that promise medical breakthroughs or miracle cures but have no scientific basis, or consumer-buying reviews that purport to be unbiased but are actually sponsored by one of the companies whose product is being reviewed.
While fake news is a very real thing, it has now gone so far that people are starting to overuse the term. This makes it more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. It also, unfortunately, diminishes the legitimacy and unbiased reporting of reputable news organizations or the years of meticulous research by scientists. While it is our prerogative as individuals to form our own opinions, it’s important to make the distinction that disagreeing with an article is not the same as it being fake.
Differentiating real from fake
All this falls under the umbrella of Information Literacy – a fancy term that means having the ability to find information, critically evaluate its legitimacy, and use it effectively. With so much information out there, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, especially when searching online. Here are some tips to help you distinguish reliable information from the fake.
- Be skeptical. If you read a story that seems unbelievable, can you find other reputable organizations reporting the same story?
- Examine the source. Is the story from a legitimate news agency such as the Associated Press, a reputable health organization such as the National Institutes of Health, or a nonprofit consumer review organization like Consumer Reports? If you are directed to an unknown website, does it have an “About” page that gives the site’s credentials? If not, do a Google search and see what you can find.
- Use a variety of media platforms and sources. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 64% of users who get news through social media only get news from one site. Follow up on the headlines that you read on social media. Legitimate news events should have more than one agency reporting on the story.
- Verify the evidence. Are there individuals or agencies quoted within the article? If the story does not have any references, that may be a red flag. Some stories include quotes from official-sounding sources, but further investigation may reveal that the sources are not legitimate.
- Note the website’s domain name and website design. Fake news sites often have bad aesthetics and/or urls that are slight variations of well-known names. Avoid sites with these characteristics. When in doubt, follow up on a nonpartisan, nonprofit fact-checking site such as FactCheck.org.
- Look for bias. Legitimate news stories are designed to report the facts. If you find yourself reacting strongly to a headline or story, stop and ask yourself if it was deliberately written with an angle meant to garner a response from the reader.
Interested in learning more?
Navigating the information landscape is more complicated than ever. That’s where we can help! This blog post is one in a planned series about the issue. Check back soon for more tips on how to decipher reputable information from that which is misleading, biased, or just plain made up. The library will be offering an information literacy class How to Spot Fake News on April 5, 2017 from 6:30-8:30pm at the Cook Park Library Meeting Room. Please check the upcoming issue of Ins and Outs for additional details or register online for the program.