Alternative Facts: Tips for telling fake news from real news

Ask students to read the following, or share the information with students.

 

Alternative Facts

Chuck Todd, host of NBC's Meet the Press:

“You did not answer the question of why the president asked the White House press secretary to come out in front of the podium for the first time, and utter a falsehood. Why did he do that? It undermines the credibility of the entire White House press office on day one.”

 
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump:

“Don't be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You're saying it's a falsehood, and they're giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that. But the point really is…”

 
With these words, Conway gave a name to a phenomenon that's not exactly new. Politicians have been known to lie. What is new, or new-ish, is the vast platform for lies to proliferate.
 
In 2016, according to the Pew Research Center:

  • 38% of adults (and 50% of 18-29-year-olds) often got news via the internet
  • 62% of adult Americans (and 81% of 18-29-year-olds) got news from social media 

While the internet can be an excellent source of news, it is also an excellent source of lies. A “news source” you find on the internet may have been created by a group of friends who like to prank. It might have been created by a syndicate that gets paid by the click, by a racist group plotting a new civil war, or by almost anyone with a little time and money. Hyperlinks and the speed of computer networks allow for wide availability of anything with a catchy headline.
 
All this provides fertile ground for fake news and "alternative facts."
 
"News" not based on actual facts would not be a problem if everyone knew it was fake and was just a form of entertainment. Unfortunately, most people cannot distinguish between fake and real news:

  • According to a survey commissioned by Buzzfeed, Americans were fooled by fake headlines about 75% of the time.
  • A survey conducted by Stanford University showed that 82% of middle school students could not distinguish an ad labeled “sponsored content” from a real news story on a website.

If we can't tell the difference between fake news and real news, what are the consequences for our country? Doesn't our political system depend on having an informed electorate? 
 


 

Quiz

Which of the following headlines are likely to be real? Which are fake?
 
1.  "Clinton Campaign Staffer Says Hillary Tried To ‘Sell Her Soul’ To Win, Turns Out She Doesn’t Have Soul"

2.  "Pope Francis at White House: 'Koran and Holy Bible Are the Same'"

3.  "DeQuincy Louisiana: First City Making It Illegal To Be Gay"
 
Answers: All are fake 
 


 

6 Tips for Detecting Fake News


How can we know that a “news story” is real (even if it might be biased in some way)?  Here are some strategies to use.


1. Examine the website’s URL. Is the URL silly, an imitation of a well-known media outlet, a blog site, or some other suspicious name? Examples:

  • abcnews.com.co
  • thenewsnerd.com

 
2.
Examine the website’s content with a critical eye. 

What is website’s purpose? Does it have obviously satirical or outrageous stories on the home page? Examples from the NewsExaminer.com site:

  • “Secret Service Agent Says Obama Is Muslim & Gay In New Tell-All Book"
  • “Donald Trump Introduces New Muslim/Refugee Badges; ‘Nazi-Like’ Plan Requires All Muslims & Refugees To Wear Badges Like The Jews Did During The Holocaust"
  • "Donald Trump Assaults Blind Man After Rally In Ohio"

 
3. Check the "About" tab on the website and the site’s writers and staff.

Do the staff and contact pages appear legitimate? Examples: 

 

  • The empirenews.net site states on its About page “Empire News is intended for entertainment purposes only.”
  • On the realnewsrightnow.com site, the one staff person has apparently been nominated for 3 Nobel Prizes, 3 Pulitzer Prizes and the Oscar Mayer Award for Journalistic Excellence
  • The writer of an abcnews.com.co story, “Jimmy Rustling” has won 14 Peabody Awards--and a handful of Pulitzer Prizes. "Jimmy Rustling" is also a slang expression for meeting emotional needs.

 
4. Read critically: Does the story make sense? 

Some fake news stories are hastily written, with typos, grammatical mistakes or obviously false statements. Is the sensational headline supported by the facts in the story? Example from nowtheendbegins.com:

“KELLYANNE CONWAY GETS SECRET SERVICE PROTECTION AS CRAZED LIBERALS THREATEN TO KILL HER”

Nothing in the story related any threats to Conway from liberals. 
 

5. Google the main elements of the headline/story or check real news sites for it.  

This is often one of the quickest ways to determine if a story is real or fake. If it's big news but has not been picked up by news organizations such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or major news networks, then there’s a reason to be suspicious. 


6. Google the website itself.

You may discover that the website has been labeled by reputable sources as delivering fake news. 

 

Facebook and Google have vowed to take some action against fake news sites. But the sheer number of fake news sites and the websites that mingle fake and ordinary news make it likely that we will have to cope with the confusion for the foreseeable future.

And as President Trump's advisor has demonstrated, we'll also have to learn how to sort the "alternative facts" of our chosen leaders from actual facts. More than ever, we need critical eyes and ears. 
 
 


 

Discussion 

1. Is there such thing as objective reporting? How are fake news and "alternate facts" different or worse than the bias of any media?
 
2. How important is media literacy to our democracy? Is it our responsibility as citizens to be informed?
 
3. Are Facebook and Google engaging in censorship by taking action against fake news sites?
 
4.  Is there anything our class can do to make more people aware of fake news? (If students come up with good ideas, you might help them carry out a class project to raise awareness.)
 
5. What steps can we as a society take to limit the damage done by fake news?

 


 

 

Sources

http://www.cjr.org/innovations/librarians_journalism_lessons.php
 
http://www.factcheck.org/2016/11/how-to-spot-fake-news/
 
https://www.skepticalscience.com/docs/Debunking_Handbook.pdf
 
http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
 
http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/
 
https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/fake-news-survey?utm_term=.tggdJjV5Ym#.glGrmlbXxe
 
http://www.wsj.com/articles/most-students-dont-know-when-news-is-fake-stanford-study-finds-1479752576
 
http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2016/11/28/a-scientific-approach-to-distinguishing-real-from-fake-news/2/#1a9241a177dd
 
https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview