By Mike Daly
On January 11, 2017, then President-elect Donald Trump responded to a CNN reporter’s request for a question with a startling accusation: “You are fake news.” The President-elect used his opinion of one of the major news organizations in this country—one of the many that had provided critical coverage of him in the run-up to the election—to justify his decision to ignore and demean the network. This strange moment marked the culmination of what had been a long, exhausting election season chock-full o’ allegations of “fake news” in response to unflattering coverage and actual fabricated news stories intended to sway the public.
One week later, President Trump’s day-old administration released some fake news of its own when Sean Spicer oddly informed the public that the president’s inauguration crowd was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” This statement didn’t seem accurate to anyone who observed the event, and was easily disproved in the coming days. Three weeks later, the president himself conveyed a false statement when he told reporters the margin of his electoral college win was the largest since President Reagan; in fact, Presidents Obama (twice), Clinton, and George H.W. Bush all had larger margins.
The above are examples of the modern uses of “fake news”—as either a way to deliberately mislead the public, or a means to deflect or discredit potentially damaging, newsworthy information or sources. Sometimes, “fake news” can even materialize into physical danger.
In December 2016, in order to “investigate” fake claims of a pedophilia ring, Edgar Maddison Welch brought an AR-15 rifle into a Washington D.C. pizzeria and fired shots. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but employees of the shop confirmed that they had been targets of harassment and threats for some time as a result of the fabricated “Pizzagate” conspiracy that had gone viral. What began as a wild and baseless tweet eventually became appealing content to mainstream conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones—who then spread the message to an audience of millions via his on-air and online radio program and his website, InfoWars.com.
“Pizzagate,” all things considered, is a tale of “what if?” What if innocent lives had been taken because of the made-up story? It wouldn’t be the first time, of course, but its occurrence at the end of a political season that is now known to have been infested with “fake news” makes it a timely cautionary tale. Whether it originates from a foreign agent, a popular radio host or your pal’s Twitter feed, it’s important to understand how to detect “fake news,” so you can be armed with the truth and avoid the inadvertent spreading of false information. Long gone are the days where everyone got their news from the same ideologically neutral television news stations. Americans can forgive themselves for feeling frustrated and a bit lost when trying to wade through the muck of Internet media in order to get a story straight. The harsh reality nowadays is that people will have to do some homework if they’re truly interested in the truth.
Fortunately, you needn’t be a detective or veteran journalist to determine with a high degree of confidence whether a bit of news is real or fake. Whether you’re digesting a news story, bit of gossip you hear from a friend, the source of the information is always the best first place to look. If there is a silver lining to the recent onslaught of “fake news,” it’s the emergence of reputable websites and diligent, credible journalists dedicated to its exposure. A simple Google search of the story’s source will likely turn up an extensive history of the source’s publications. You may even get lucky and see the source in question turn up in thoroughly researched articles debunking fake news. Pulitzer-prize winning websites, such as PolitiFact, scrutinize statements that have drawn some attention by conducting research and assigning a “true or false” Pinocchio rating. And it’s OK if you’re hesitant to trust “fact checker” sites; you could still make use of them by analyzing the sources cited in the fact check and using them as sort of a “first stop” for your budding investigation.
If the content you’re curious about is an opinion piece that comes to a particular conclusion (say, for example, an article on immigration policy) you’d be well-served to google articles or sources that come to a different conclusion. Comparing the two points of view and the data upon which they rely may help you decide which argument has better support, and can serve you well in further researching the issue. Be wary of quotes as well. Such statements have a propensity for being taken out of context more than anything else. Often, the brevity of Twitter’s 140 characters can sometimes rob the reader of the proper context of a quote that may, at first glance, appear sensational. Spend an extra few minutes to google the full article—or, if plausible, the transcript—citing the quote to see if the language still has the same impact when viewed in the context of the full discussion.
Finally, you might want to consider the “wait-and-see” approach; content comes thick and fast in the modern information era, and giving a story or a piece of news time “to breathe” before making a rushed conclusion on the matter may allow for a more in-depth (or updated) assessment of the topic. The truth is certainly worth the wait, and, in 2017, the wait is unlikely to be very long.
Understand that “fake news” is very real and can be very dangerous. The best antidote isn’t increased censorship or the expansion of libel laws—it’s an informed populace. So by all means, read and watch the news with a critical eye. You’ll be doing your part to deprive the perpetrators of “fake news” the oxygen they need to survive.