Brecke Boyd Explains Facts and Online News

Tag: fake news

Fake News and Honest Mistakes are entirely different things

Now that 2017 is over, pundits and analysts alike have looked back on a year of “fake news” allegations and the way the public evaluates the veracity of various online stories and reports. In fact, many have named “fake news” as one of the phrases of the year for its use (and arguably over-use) in the public arena over the past twelve months. While the term “fake news” originated to describe false information intentionally disseminated with the intent to deceive readers, it’s taken on a life of its own. Nowadays, the term has so many common uses that it has ceased to mean much of anything at all.

Most recently, the term has been applied to reports or stories that contain honest mistakes or unintentional factual inaccuracies. Journalists have made mistakes and broken stories without fully vetting their sources, fact-checking their information thoroughly, or simply not editing closely enough. Politicians and sympathizers have long accused each other of manipulating the truth and telling only one side of a story, but any time a reporter makes an honest mistake, all mayhem breaks loose.

There’s an important distinction between fake news and a mistake in reporting, but both bolster the same point — Americans want to be able to trust their journalists and news sources, and both of these issues have seriously damaged reader’s trust in news media sources.

As I’ve written about before, the original intention of the phrase “fake news” was to describe malicious sources that knowingly spread wholly false information with the sole purpose of deceit, particularly bots that attempted to sway voters during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Those sources take pride in misleading readers and make it their mission to convince visitors to change their behavior based on the fallacious reporting.

Unlike intentional fake news, though, legitimate news sources do what they can to make amends if they realize they made a mistake and publicized incorrect, fraudulent, incomplete, or mis-written information. Knowing the responsibility they have to the public, news sources enforce high penalties for reporters who fail to adhere to the highest levels of journalistic integrity in reporting stories, live-tweeting events, interpreting data, and smearing someone’s good name. A number of times throughout this past year, reporters have had to resign because their failure to thoroughly vet their sources.

Mistakes happen by people with the best and purest intentions, and as the news-consuming public, it’s hard for us to forgive and move on when we feel deceived or mislead. However, we need to be able to discern between mistakes by our present journalistic media that works to uphold responsible reporting, over malintent snake oil salesmen who purposely create fake news.

What do we do with Oral Histories?

On the popular question and answer forum Quora, one user asked, “Is there any time fake new is a good thing?” Naturally, many Americans’ knee-jerk reaction is “absolutely not.” In the US, we highly value the verifiable and documented truth, and as such, we hold our journalists to extremely high standards, both legally and societally. When we discover that a journalist has been spreading false information, they face both the courts of law and a public crucifixion of their reputations. However, if we zoom out a little, the issue is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as we would say it is today.

For long stretches of human existence, “history” was not the cold hard science and exercise in forensic archivism that it is today. Rather, history was passed down orally from elders to younger generations as a means of building a unified cultural identity. Consider the famous Greek tragedies, The Iliad and the Odyssey. Today, we regard these works as highly fictionalized accounts of battles that probably did take place in real life — although, not with the intervention of petty deities. At the time, though, the purpose of the stories was not to provide a factual portrayal of what happened — instead, these tales taught morals and religion.

Countless cultures practiced the passing of oral history. Throughout the entire continents of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, indigenous people used oral histories infused with the supernatural to pass on creation stories, societal values, and explanations for natural phenomena and royal succession.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment Era in Western Europe. The development of the Scientific Method required scientists to test theories and ideas ruthlessly by collecting evidence, drawing on past research, and applying the most critical lens possible to the issue at hand. Naturally, this fundamental shift in what it meant to test a theory and declare something “true” was not confined to the hard sciences. Soft sciences like sociology, politics, and economics also adopted the perspective and required hard proof to determine what’s accurate.

History was soon caught up in this fit of proof and evidence, too. Governments, educational institutions, religious institutions, and laypeople alike all began record keeping on unprecedented levels. To this day, the British government maintains logs detailing every moment of their time as colonizers and the exact amount of damage they inflicted. The majority of society has benefited from relying more heavily on evidence — we have better medicines, more accurate predictions, and highly advanced technology as a result. However, all this innovation left oral histories in an uncomfortable spot.

Oral history now inhabits a peculiar crevice in academia. We can’t teach oral histories as “facts” because they are completely unprovable. However, discounting them totally means that the history of Africa, parts of Asia, and the Americas gets omitted from textbooks and instead are relegated to “myth and folklore” courses. History purists and activists who tout more inclusionary agedas clash often about what to do with these histories and where they do or don’t belong.

Ancient oral histories are different from today’s fake news epidemics in many ways, most notably in the latter’s intent to malevolently deceive. But still, both terms refer to the intentional dissemination of semi- or wholly false information with the end goal of shifting the culture. So to the original question of whether “fake news” can ever be a good thing, the answer has more to do with what we call “fake news” and the purpose of the information.

Brecke Latham Boyd Teens & Media Literacy

Teens & Media Literacy

Among those most vulnerable to falling for the pandemic of false information are young people in middle school and high school who don’t have the real-world experience yet to discern factual reporting from sensationalized nonsense. Some schools have begun to include classes in news and media literacy to help students think critically about bias, narrative, and “end goal” for the viewer, and it seems to be helping to create a stronger generation of media consumers, but we need more, and we need it now.

Buzzfeed recently polled school-aged students on their sensitivity to sensationalized news to get a sense of where we are now and what work still needs to be done. The same way that most people would classify themselves as good drivers, most young people classify themselves as adept at identifying lies on the internet. Buzzfeed partnered with the social media app After School whose target audience is exclusively grade school students. In all, 39,000 students completed the survey. In its analysis, Buzzfeed admits that its poll likely does not meet the standards of scientific rigor, since any student with the app could submit answers and there’s  no way to determine the authenticity of the answers, but the responses are still worth noting.

According to the poll, a little over 80% of teens believe themselves to be very good at identifying falsities when they cross their newsfeeds. As Stanford has noted, though, many teens are not as good as they think they are, especially when it comes to determining the source of a claim. About 65% of students said that, when they spot bad intelligence online, they choose to ignore it, while around 30% said they call it out.

Among those teens who had never encountered the term “fake news,” a little over 65% still believed that the news publishes and promotes factually inaccurate stories. Surprisingly, though, only about half of those who identified as unfamiliar with the term believed that they could identify an example of fake news.

The author of the Buzzfeed piece noted that these results are unfortunate but not shocking at all. As per a 2016 poll conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs, about three out of four adults had trouble spotting a fake news story when it came across their screens. In addition, the pollsters asked respondents to identify which of five headlines they’d seen come across their radars, and many said that they had seen headlines that had indeed been completely made up by the pollsters.

As the summer approaches, parents and children can embark on missions to combat fake news together. Dinnertime discussions about what’s going on in the news can help families consolidate all the news each member has individually consumed and check it against what other members have read. Many libraries also offer summer sessions on news literacy and discussion groups that may help all family members learn about avoiding the lure of click bait.

Brecke Latham Boyd Google Cracking Down

Google Cracking Down on Fake News

brecke latham boyd google cracking down on fake newsFake news: otherwise known as the two words nearly everyone has heard ad nauseam for the past several months. However, in spite of its inherently annoying nature, this phrase represents a very real problem in our society — and others around the world.

Sometime in 2015, articles with long, somewhat seedy titles began popping up all over Facebook users’ news feeds. This lower form of online journalism, also known as clickbait, was created to generate high volumes of web traffic to otherwise irrelevant websites with questionable URLs. This tactic has steadily risen in popularity over the past two years, with even popular websites sinking to exaggerating titles for the sake of attracting clicks.

This phenomena spun out of control as the United States entered election season, with exaggerated — and even downright false — stories about candidates surfacing at the most inopportune times and even caused some very real consequences (e.g., Pizzagate).

Even after all of the public acknowledgment of the existence of fake news, social media users are still faced with clickbait disguised as legitimate news stories. It should come as no surprise that this never-ending flow of fake news has led both Facebook and Google to come under fire for not making a greater effort to prevent such false information from spreading like wildfire.

In response to their critics, Google has started the arduous process of rewriting its powerful search algorithms to keep fake news stories from the top of users’ results. This tactic also entails 10,000-plus employees meticulously flagging pages that publish hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and other content the company labels “low-quality.” While this does not necessarily eliminate fake news from the internet, it certainly reduces its visibility and relevance.

Additionally, this effort has come just months after Google announced it permanently banned over 200 AdSense users for attempting to make a profit by perpetuating misleading or false content.

While these actions are a noteworthy step in the right direction, a report released by the Harvard Kennedy School and Northeastern University suggested the news media could be doing more to counteract the chilling effects of fake news.

Among the researchers’ many recommended plans of action, the most notable included: reaching out to conservative agencies such as Cato and Koch Institutes to counteract civilians’ general distrust of the news media, thus reducing their likelihood to believe in “underground” sources; collecting more data from social media platforms to aid journalists in accurate reporting; and incorporating researchers into the average newsroom, thereby providing journalists with “cheap and reliable sources of information so that well-sourced reporting can outpace the spread of misinformation on social media.”

Regardless of the tactics that are employed, it is imperative that they put an end to the perpetuation of fake news once and for all. Failure to do so will only enforce Americans’ reliance on irreputable sources due to their lack of affiliation with the news media — and that is simply a risk we cannot afford to take.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén