Courtesy of CNN
March 22, 2017
Three days before the 2016 election, the Denver Guardian released a story covering Michael Brown, an FBI agent believed to be responsible for Hillary Clinton’s email leaks, who was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. The article outlined the course of events beginning with the murder of Brown’s wife, then an act of arson, and ended in Brown’s ultimate suicide. The piece incorporated interviews with neighbors and the police chief, and even included minute details down to the status of Brown’s beloved beagle after the fire. The story concluded with a standard journalistic disclaimer: “This is a developing story.” And develop it did. The story found a home on Facebook, where it garnered more than five million shares. At one point, the story was circulating at 100 shares per minute. The problem? The entire story was a lie.
“We had our social media guys kind of go out and do a little dropping it throughout Trump groups and Trump forums and, boy, it spread like wildfire,” said Jestin Coler, owner of the Denver Guardian, in an interview with NPR. “Everything about it was fictional. The town, the people, the sheriff, the FBI guy.”
This is just one example of what is know as “fake news–media,” designed to deceive audiences in order to smear a cause or person. Not to be confused with satire, which openly acknowledges its humorous fabrications, fake news causes insidious misinformation that can sway voters and even influence public opinion. Dozens of outlets market themselves as legitimate news media—potentially changing the name of a major news company by just a few letters to trick readers into believing the story.
Though the misleading sources have recently come under scrutiny, there is certainly nothing new about fake news. For as long as there has been media, there have been stories written by people who have biases and angles. In 1835, The New York Sun published a series entitled “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,” which claimed the discovery of life on the Moon. Elated at the possibility of a scientific breakthrough, the public neglected to question it, even with the lack of proof
Why do we fall for this clickbait? What makes us believe sensationalist stories that our rational brains might reject?
“Gossip and story-telling is how we process and exchange information. Studies of gossip show its value, and everyone loves it because it gives us information about other people that we need to know,” said Michael Shermer, author of ‘The Believing Brain,’ in an interview with the Huffington Post. “Who’s trustworthy, who’s not, who’s honest, who’s not, who’s a good tribe member and who’s not. That’s what gossip is about. That’s an evolved trait. And reading is a relatively new skill that humans have. It doesn’t come intuitively to us.”
Sensationalist news media is even more toxic when sanctioned by the US government. When Kellyanne Conaway reports on a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never occurred, or when Sean Spicer claims that this year’s inaugural crowds yielded the highest turnout ever, a statement disproven by the National Park Service’s aerial photos, they normalize and institutionalize this blatant disregard for the truth.
There are steps that one can take to avoid fake news. Check to make sure multiple news sources have covered the story. If more than one mainstream news outlet covers the event, it is more than likely real. Examine the URL of the site. Many fake news sites take the names or reputable outlets, but vary it slightly. In the case of photojournalism, reverse image search the image to see if it has been published elsewhere, or even doctored. If you use Google Chrome, FiB, BS Detector, or Media Bias Fact Check are three plugins that can be used to uncover fake stories.
“There is no press tzar who runs the world’s press—ultimately, it’s us,” said Shermer. “It’s a free marketplace of ideas. Just don’t attend to certain sites, they’re clickbait sites—don’t click.”