“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead of Apparent Murder-Suicide.” These are just two of the many fake news stories that went viral during the course of the 2016 presidential election.
Fake news Web sites are those that use deliberate hoaxes and information in order to sway public opinion. Unlike satire publications, such as The Onion, their goal is not to be humorous, but rather to purposefully misinform. Many times, the Web sites originate in countries outside of the United States–such as Russia, Macedonia, and Romania–and are an attempt to make money by attracting viewers who will “click” on advertisements on the site. Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to believe stories that confirm their biases, and reject those that don’t, whether or not those stories are actually true. And with the predominance of social media, bogus stories can go viral very quickly, spreading misinformation on a national scale, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Why It Matters
Though debate over whether or not fake news stories influenced the outcome of the recent presidential election will likely continue for some time, it can’t be denied that spreading false information can be dangerous. Last weekend, for example, a man carrying a gun entered Comet Ping Pong, a pizza shop in Washington, D.C., to investigate a fake news story that surfaced during the election about the Democratic Party’s involvement in very illegal activity coordinated from the store’s basement. When the “PizzaGate” conspiracy story was retweeted by the son of Michael Flynn (Trump’s pick for national security adviser), more and more people began to believe it, which led ultimately to violent and potentially tragic action.
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What Can Be Done About It?
The first line of defense is to be sure that any news stories you share are valid ones. Fake news sites are often disguised as real ones in order to play on the viewer’s impulse to believe. The Christian Times Newspaper and the Denver Guardian, for example, are both notoriously phony sites. One way to prevent being pulled in is to check the site’s URL suffix. Those that add extra letters after “.com”–such as “usatodaycom.co” or “abcnews.com.co”–and those that end in “.lo” are often fake sites.
Another way to tell is simply to read the article itself. While this sounds obvious, many people–particularly on social media–will read a headline and share an article without ever actually having read it. Most valid, researched news articles will provide many linked sources. If a story does not link to any sources, chances are, it’s a fake.
So, is the Internet itself to blame? In the wake of the election, both Facebook and Google have come under fire for allowing false news stories to spread on their sites. After all, a recent study found that more than half of Americans get their news from social media–the vast majority of them from Facebook, which reaches 1.8 billion people around the world. Google has recently responded by saying that it will refrain from advertising on phony sites, and Facebook has agreed to no longer allow fake news sites to advertise on their platform.
The Future of Fake News
Throughout his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump encouraged a distrust of the media. The most dangerous effect of fake news sites is that they cause all news sites–and the media itself–to be called into question. In fact, recent studies have shown that people are more likely to distrust real news sites than fake ones. Without a reliable way to disseminate real and trustworthy information, our democracy will surely suffer.