Fighting fake news

FAKE news is a concern that we did not have 10, 20 years ago. At least, not at the alarming levels that we see it now.

It’s technology, or the ease and speed in which information spreads. In the past you did not have to worry about whether the news story in front of you was legitimate, satirical, or downright fake. You were just grateful to have that piece of information at all.

These days, however, we see all sorts of articles being shared online. Perhaps in our desire to show that we are passionate about the subject matter, or whether we sincerely just want to spread what we think is important information to our friends, we tend to take whatever we see online at face value.

It may be good faith—but these days good faith can lead to bad results.

Remember a supposed study by the Harvard Institute of Socio-Political Progression (HIS-PP) that said Filipinos were the first among the world’s gullible races? A journalist felt compelled to write about it in her column after reading the article in a web site called The Mosquito Press.

“This is a serious allegation we should not ignore,” the journalist wrote, citing that the study involved content analyses of over 500,000 historical documents from 300 different societies. “...We better take it seriously.”

Turns out, there was no such study, and she became the prime example of what she herself warned the public about. This was in 2011 and things have definitely become more challenging since then.

It was meant to be a joke—there are sites that were specifically set up as satire. Even reputable news organizations have them—the New Yorker, for example, has the Borowitz Report that once said President Trump fired acting attorney general Sally Yates for downloading a copy of the Constitution into her office computer. This was not true, of course. Yates was fired because she told Justice Department officials not to defend Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries. Satire is an old form of humor, and quite an effective tool for criticism and dissent.

What we need is the ability to distinguish real news from fake ones that are being portrayed as real.

And if adults of sufficient intelligence can fall prey to fake news, where does that leave our children? In a vulnerable place, that’s where. And we need to do something about it.


To be sure, some things are being done. Facebook itself, where we see many examples of fake news (and heartbreaking displays of gullibility among our friends), has launched a page because “we want to stop the spread of false news...” so goes the intro.

Be skeptical of headlines, it warns. Look closely at the URL. Investigate the source. Watch for unusual formatting. Consider the photos. Inspect the dates. Check the evidence. Look at other reports. Ask yourself—is the story a joke? And remember: Some stories are intentionally false.

Meanwhile, an American fifth-grade teacher writes in about his experience when he taught his students how to spot fake news. “Now they won’t stop fact-checking me!” says Scott Belley, in an article published March 29.

Among his guidelines: Check the copyright of the Web page. Verify with multiple sources. Compare the credibility of the sources. Check the date of publication. Know the author’s expertise and background with the subject. And then, ask yourselves: Does it match your prior knowledge? Does it seem realistic?

For its part, Germany has taken the fight against fake news to legislation. The Washington Post reports that the social-media bill “could quickly turn this nation into a test case in the effort to combat the spread of fake news and hate speech in the West.”

“If passed, as now appears likely, the measure would compel large outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to rapidly remove fake news that incites hate, as well as other ‘criminal’ content, or face fines as high as 50 million euros ($53 million),” the Post reports. “Depending on how obviously false or illegal a post is, companies would have as little as 24 hours to remove it. In addition to fake news and hate speech, the draft bill would target posts seen as inciting terrorism or spreading child pornography.” 

The bill is said to have a high chance of approval in the German parliament before September elections. Apparently, it’s precaution so that what happened in last year’s elections in the US would not happen there, as well.

Others try to view the trend positively—and rightly so. Nausicaa Renner, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, says fake news has inspired great reporting. Again reference is made to the US elections in November when too many facts were cited erroneously, deliberately, when people had no opportunity to check if the numbers were even true or existent. And indeed when we doubt the information that surrounds us, would it not prompt us to dig deeper and get to the real story?

All these guides and measures are helpful, but in the end the best precaution is the simplest one: We must tell ourselves, and tell our children, to walk around with a healthy dose of disbelief. Don’t believe everything we see or hear or read. Don’t be part of a hype. Don’t share something for the sake of sharing or appearing informed.

Instead, be informed. Be informed the right way.

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Topics: Adelle Chua , fake news , Harvard Institute of Socio-Political Progression
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