Fake News: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and What Journalists Can Do to Fight Its Spread

A recent tweet from President Donald Trump that has been flagged as inaccurate. This is part of Twitter’s civic integrity policy, which was implemented in Oct. 2020, before the Nov. 2020 presidential election. (Donald Trump/Twitter)

On Dec. 4, President Donald Trump published a series of tweets that expressed his concerns with the outcome of the Nov. 3 presidential election. Some of these tweets showed Trump declaring that Election Day was “rigged” and accusing the “fake news suppressed media” for hiding stories of election fraud. Unfortunately for Trump, these claims of rampant election fraud has already been disputed by multiple news organizations like Associated Press and NBC News, and even by the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to a new feature implemented by Twitter, his tweets – and many tweets like this – have been flagged as false, and access to accurate information associated with these tweets is just a click away.

Since the 2016 election that secured Trump the presidency, the topic of fake news has gained traction as one of the most rampant problems in American media. For instance, if you watch Fox News on TV or listen to them on the radio, it is likely that you’ll hear anchors like Greg Gutfeld stating how the media only reports the “bad” about Trump and other conservatives, not the “good.” As journalists, we have the responsibility of making sure everything we share is truthful. In order to figure out how to combat fake news, however, it is important to know exactly what it is and how it impacts us.

What Is Fake News?

There are many definitions for the term “fake news” that it can be hard to tell what truly is fake and what isn’t. Personally, I define fake news as a story or other form of news that appears to be true by disguising itself as a credible source and/or report. I also consider a a story to be fake news if it is then spread by others with the intent to mislead or trick people.

This definition of fake news falls in line with other definitions of the term “fake news” from the Cambridge Dictionary and the MacMillan Dictionary. Though it may have gained traction during the 2016 presidential campaign, fake news is nothing new. According to an article published by the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, fake news can be dated as far back as the 1800’s, during which “yellow journalism” – full of exaggerated headlines and reporting rumors as if they were fact – was common.

Are Tech Companies to Blame?

With the majority of fake news spread on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, technology companies have a role in keeping “fake news” prevalent by allowing it to circulate across their platforms. Fortunately, some of these tech companies have started monitoring false content by putting warnings on posts that may include false information. One notable example of this is through Twitter’s civic integrity policy, which was implemented across the platform in Oct. 2020. According to this policy, a tweet can be reported, labelled as false, or even deleted if the tweet contains any information that misleads people about how to participate in an election or other civic process, intimidates or dissuades people from participating in an election or other civic process and/or intends to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process. Accounts can also be flagged if it misrepresents their affiliation, or shares content that falsely represents its affiliation, to a candidate, elected official, political party, electoral authority, or government entity.

Despite these warnings, it can be argued that tech companies have not gone far enough to prevent the spread of fake news. According to articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post, these warnings came too late for the 2020 election. These articles state that these labels were a “win” for these companies because they were able to “look just responsive enough to avoid being blamed for botching another election.”

However, it is important to remember that tech companies are not solely to blame for the spread of fake news. As journalists, we have a responsibility to our audience to be transparent in our reporting by using tools, like social media, to share more of the behind-the-scenes reporting process. This, in turn, can help increase our credibility as well as gain our audience’s trust. But there are also tools that the general public can implement in their everyday lives to help fight the spread of fake news.

How You Can Fight Fake News

According to an article published by Butler Community College, here are some steps you can take to find – and avoid – fake news.

  1. Check the source

Does the website link end with a .com, .edu, or .gov? Is the source from an academic database or from a quick Google search?

2. Check the claims in the article.

Can the claims be backed up by a reliable source, like a government official or an expert in the field?

3. Check the links in the article

If you click on the links, do they lead to information that verifies something in the article.

4. Question everything.

Not only should you question the information in the article, it is important to take everything related to the article with a grain of salt. What is the author’s background? Does the site have ads? Is the source from a think tank or other organization with a significant hold of the subject of the article?

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