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Tips to Debunk Fake News

Judging News Credibility

There is a lot of conversation in the media about "fake news." This discussion brings to light important issues, but not new ones. There are many tools at your disposal to help you judge whether or not a piece of news is credible. But the most important tool is your own critical evaluation. Ask if the claims made in the article seem outlandish, hard to believe, or rooted in fear or emotion. If they do, you need to do more digging. The news landscape is complex and shifting, as explained in the following excerpt:

In the fall of 2014, a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa took over the news headlines. As doctors worked to control the virus, the media bombarded us with information about the dangers of Ebola and warned of a possible outbreak in the United States. Twitter blew up with alarming tweets like this one from September 30: @CNN: #BREAKING: 1st diagnosed case of #Ebola in the U.S. confirmed, which snowballed, causing fear to spread through the country so fast that by November, Americans ranked Ebola as their third biggest healthcare concern in a Gallup poll.[1] Emilio Ferrara, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, tracked the spread of Ebola hysteria on Twitter, finding that the “‘fear-rich’” tweets...triggered re-tweets twice as fast, on average, than neutral posts or posts conveying other emotions such as happiness...Beyond the Ebola scare, he says, the snowballing of fear online likely explains why smear campaigns dominate politics, why Twitter rumors can crash the stock market, and why ISIS’s beheading videos have become successful propaganda.”[2]

News journalism and social media present an interesting case to consider when thinking about the complexity of the information landscape. The reach of social media is indisputable[3], but as Ferrara found, the actual facts behind Tweets can easily be obscured by the hyperbole of the language used to grab people’s attention. By the end of the Ebola outbreak, there were only four confirmed cases in the U.S, but “more than 1 in 6 Americans believed Ebola was the nation’s biggest health problem.”[4] But before swearing off Twitter, take into account the platform that social media sites have created for a more diverse set of voices to be heard. While minority Americans are still largely excluded from opportunities to control what is published and produced in mainstream books and media, new forms of media provide new opportunities. Twitter enabled the Black Lives Matter movement to gain hold in 2015 and racial controversies to dominate American cultural conversations with social media campaigns like 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite.

The success of these campaigns combined with the demographics of social media use reinforce the notion that “The Cyber Left is about flattening hierarchies, flattening governance processes, combined with using the logic of social networks for deep consensus building.”[5] 96% of young African American Internet users use a social networking site. 40% of those use Twitter, which is 12% higher than their White counterparts.[6] “Meanwhile, what remains of print journalism is shifting, morphing into a loose web of digital outfits populated by a corps of underpaid young freelancers and keyboard hustlers, Twitter fiends and social-media soothsayers.”[7] Those hardest hit by the shifts in traditional publishing are women, minorities, and older people. In 2015, 89% of Publisher Weekly’s members self-identified as White, while only 5% identified as Asian, 3% as Hispanic, 2% as mixed race, and a tiny 1% as African American.[8] In February 2016, the New York Times compiled a list of “503 of the most powerful people in American culture, government, education, and business, and found that just 44 are minorities.”[9]

[From Downey, Annie (2016). Critical Information Literacy: Theories, Methods, and Ideas. New York: Library Juice Press.]

 

[1] Lydia Saad, “Ebola Ranks Among Americans’ Top Three Healthcare Concerns,” Gallup.com, accessed March 4, 2016, http://www.gallup.com/poll/179429/ebola-ranks-among-americans-top-three-healthcare-concerns.aspx.

[2] Len Small, “Nothing Snowballs Online Like Fear,” Nautilus, February 18, 2016, http://nautil.us/issue/33/attraction/how-ebola-infected-twitter.

[3] 40% of people under 35 reported using social media as their primary news source in a 2015 poll. Ibid.

[4] Lydia Saad, “Ebola Ranks Among Americans’ Top Three Healthcare Concerns.”

[5] Todd Wolfson, as cited in Elizabeth Day, “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement,” The Guardian, July 19, 2015, sec. World news, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/19/blacklivesmatter-birth-civil-rights-movement.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dale Maharidge, “These Journalists Dedicated Their Lives to Telling Other People’s Stories. What Happens When No One Wants to Print Their Words Anymore?,” The Nation, March 2, 2016, para. 10, http://www.thenation.com/article/these-journalists-dedicated-their-lives-to-telling-other-peoples-stories/.

[8] Jim Milliot, “The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey 2015: A Younger Workforce, Still Predominantly White,” PublishersWeekly.com, October 16, 2015, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/68405-publishing-industry-salary-survey-2015-a-younger-workforce-still-predominantly-white.html.

[9] Haeyoun Park Keller Josh and Josh Williams, “The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees,” The New York Times, February 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/02/26/us/race-of-american-power.html.