Fact-checking used as a remedy to help cure fake news epidemic

By Luke Bollinger

“Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide.”

This is the headline of a story published on Dec. 11, 2016. The story was published on abcnews.com.co. If this controversial executive order sounds unfamiliar, it’s because it is absolutely false.

The promulgation of fake news like this has gotten out of control. After the 2016 election, Buzzfeed used Facebook’s monitoring tools to collect data and determined that the top 20 fake news stories outperformed news from mainstream outlets. Data collected included views, likes, comments and shares on Facebook.

The diminished value of truth in the past election and the difficulty of identifying fake news has posed a new challenge for journalists and media outlets – combating the fictitious information that diminishes the value of truth in our society and undermines the effectiveness of media that promotes accurate journalism.

Complicating the job of journalists even further is the way politicians have wielded false information and how President Donald Trump demonized the media during his campaign and continues to do so in the first weeks of his presidency. With the truth absent from many of the narratives in our country, journalists must do some soul searching to figure out how to be more effective.

The website for the fake ABC News is strikingly similar to ABC News’ actual website, abcnews.go.com. Anyone who is familiar with the real ABC News would notice the logos of the websites, though the same format, hold some noticeable differences. The ABC emblem in the top left hand corner of the fake site is an oval, while the real logo is a circle.

The story includes quotes from now former President Barack Obama.

“I am willing to rescind my decision here today and allow the Pledge of Allegiance back into the schools if we can all agree on the creation of a new Pledge, something that is includes everyone’s beliefs and not just the belief of one nationality or faith,” he is quoted as saying.

According to the story, Trump responded by calling Obama an “illegitimate Muslim traitor.”

To the trained eye, the warning signs pointing to the falsity of this story are easily discernable. Yet, this story garnered 2.2 million interactions on Facebook.

Not a new problem

This type of fake news outlet is not an anomaly, and recognizing false news on Facebook feeds is not always easy.

The prevalence and magnitude of fake news implies that many people have problems differentiating between the accurate and inaccurate. And contrary to what some believe, young people are not immune from being enticed by fake news. A recent study from the Stanford Graduate School of Education shows that students, ranging from middle school through college, have a very hard time recognizing fake news.

“Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there,” the study said. “Our work shows the opposite.”

The main incentive for the creation of fake news is simple: money. The writers of fake news earn money from advertisements on their sites, and Facebook has proved to be a very hospitable platform, especially in a country so deeply divided down partisan lines. In order to gain more clicks, fake news readily appeals to hyper-partisan Facebook users. This strategy proved effective during an election with a hyper-partisan electorate and a Trump campaign often criticized for its dissociation with the truth.

Facebook and Google have stated they are taking actions to monitor and regulate their platforms to minimize the damage, while many fact-checking websites and groups are developing strategies to restore trust in the news.

Dale Blasingame, a journalism professor at Texas State University, said the problem of fake news is not new.

“It’s important to take a step back and realize that fake news has always been around,” he said.

Tabloids and outlandish stories, produced for entertainment value, have always been a part of media culture. What is different about what we are seeing now is the way fake news has exploded, aided by social media platforms, Blasingame said.

The role of social media

It’s no secret that people seek out and interpret information in a way that verifies their beliefs ­– a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Social media’s ability to amplify the reach of information has made this phenomenon very apparent.

Tracy Dahlby, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said many people only get their news from sites such as Facebook and Twitter and often fail to expand their scope of information inputs. He describes this as being trapped in a bubble.

“We have to fight the bubble, right?” he asked rhetorically.

Dahlby said social media users tend to believe information shared by their friends and families, and people often share a story after only reading the headline because it reaffirms what they desire to be true, despite the story being false. Once the false information has been shared, friends and family may take the headline at face value and fail to do fact checking of their own.

Dahlby said the lack of media literacy has diminished the value and usefulness of social media. The idea of a newspaper is for a community to have a conversation with itself, and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have expanded this conversation. Used correctly, these platforms allow users to have a broader conversation and access to information they might normally miss out on.

“If we allow ourselves to get trapped in that feedback loop of only listening to those people who agree with us, then it is a danger, and that’s probably what made fake news a factor in the last presidential campaign,” Dahlby said.

So, what does this mean for journalists? How do news organizations and social media companies “fight the bubble?”

The rise of fact-checking

One tool that came to the forefront during the election and has carried over since is fact-checkers. Alexios Mantzarlis works with Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network, and he said the role of fact-checkers is more important now than ever.

Mantzarlis said fact-checking entities often spring up right before an election season before seeing a significant decrease in traffic once the election is over. However, he said so far in this post-election period, traffic to fact-checking entities, such as PolitiFact and Storyful, has remained steady.

A big step for fact-checkers came when Facebook recently began working with them to monitor its newsfeed. In addition to working with fact-checkers, Mantzarlis said it was heartening that Facebook begun efforts to monitor its newsfeed. The company has also worked to alter the algorithms that promote trending stories to be more sensitive to news that may be fake.

“I don’t know that this will be necessarily be the final solution,” he said.  “I don’t think they think that either.”

For reporters such as Will Doran, the PolitiFact reporter for The News & Observer, fact-checking has become a part of their daily routine. Doran’s job represents the changing role of reporters, a role that is different from that of the fact-checkers who monitor Facebook’s newsfeed.

It is also different than traditional journalism.

Doran said one side of his job is practicing traditional journalism ­– repeating claims made by politicians while presenting both sides of the story ­– while his role as a PolitiFact reporter includes vetting the claims and researching the context and history surrounding the issue.

“It’s definitely made journalist’s jobs harder,” he said.

PolitiFact added a reporter for North Carolina because of the state’s ability to swing an election, Doran said. PolitiFact guessed correctly that more attention was needed in North Carolina politics at every level, as the races for senate and governor proved to be some of the closest in the nation.

Doran said part of his job that some traditional journalists may feel uncomfortable with is adding the analysis required when fact-checking statements made by politicians.

He said incorporating analysis into his writing helps readers understand the whole situation, but the writing does take more time because he still tries to remain objective. Writing for PolitiFact is not just calling out politicians when they lie or bend the truth, he said, but also writing about when politicians were right and used accurate information when speaking on an issue.

Dahlby said he has heard a lot of discussion about how news organizations should function in what some are calling a “post-truth era.” For him, the answer is simple.

“What we need is to get back to the old-time religion of journalism, which is to hold officials accountable as a matter of protecting the public interest,” he said.

He added that journalists should focus on the facts before thinking about the debate.

This is really an opportunity for journalists to strengthen their ability to produce quality accountability journalism, and it is more important now than ever to always be right in your reporting, Dahlby said.

Reporters such as Doran certainly have their work cut out for them, but he said he is optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think morale is too down because of people’s acceptance of fake news,” Doran said. “It’s a great time to be a fact-checker. Anytime you’re bringing light to an issue, even if you’re not reaching a whole lot of people, but you’re influencing the way they read the news, then you are doing a good job. Change happens incrementally.”

Edited by Matt Wotus