Misinformation and social media
For more than a decade now, the internet has been the fastest and most efficient way to acquire news and information. And within the internet, social media is often the fastest way to disseminate this information. Depending on one’s social circles, one person can spread information to thousands (or more!) of people in just minutes. There’s actually quite a bit of power here, the power to shape the views of others.
Of course, people are busy. They see headlines pop up in their newsfeed, and frequently that’s all they see. Many won’t actually read a full article, or do more than skim it. But even those quick flashes of information make an impact.
We live in a world where information of all sorts is plentiful. It’s easy to know what’s going on the world. We can find news slanted to our personal biases, we can find news that makes an attempt at impartiality, we can find news that bends itself into banality in order to appear objective (cough, CNN, cough). And this is all great. But it’s also fraught with peril. It’s often difficult to discern what’s real and what isn’t. Because we have the power to share information and spread the word of important (and not so important) events, we have a responsibility to spreading facts and truth.
I’m sure people reading this may scoff. “Pssh… why should I have to worry about facts? I’m not a journalist! Who cares who reads what?” If that’s your attitude, then this isn’t for you. You probably don’t care how accurate information is. The thing is, what we spread around to others does have real world consequences. The whole vaccine/autism “debate” is a great example of this. Some third rate celebrity tells everyone within earshot that she thinks vaccines cause autism. She references some pseudoscientific “studies,” does talk show rounds and magazine interviews, gets profiled repeatedly online, and eventually people start to believe it. They start spreading the misinformation around, and eventually we get… increased rates of the diseases that modern vaccines had all but wiped out. That’s just one example.
For the record, I am not blaming Jenny McCarthy specifically for the uptick in measles and rubella, but the effects of vaccine “truthers” have become very real, and celebrities with wide audiences who jump on the anti-vaccine bandwagon aren’t helping matters.
Education doesn’t end after college. We should always be looking for new information. Learning is important, both for the common good, and for personal growth. After a certain point, many people become stuck in their opinions. Anything that shakes their worldview tends to be dismissed or even ignored. This breeds laziness, which leads to misinformation. The internet is a great tool for learning. Much knowledge can be gleaned from its depths. However, it’s also a great tool for the lazy and gullible. And the lazy and gullible tend to spread their information around, both to the lazy and non-lazy alike. A quick Google search can find lots of good information. Make it too quick, however, and you get news sites that aren’t really news sites.
Almost every day on my own Facebook feed, I see a repost from Empire News, The National Report or the Daily Currant. Usually it’s a well-meaning friend who wants to tell everyone about the latest travesty from Washington, or some outrage that supports whatever social and/or political belief they have. But it’s not just individuals that spread false information around the world. Political commentary sites like Drudge and Breitbart have been guilty of jumping on clickbait and joke articles. Several state-run news organizations, including from Iran and China, have been mocked for missing the satire of sites like the Onion. Misinformation affects everyone, and makes our collective news IQs drop.
However, there’s hope! There are multiple tools for combating the spread of online misinformation. Perhaps the easiest step is just knowing what sites are not actual news sites. Some go to great lengths to appear real, some make it fairly clear that they are indeed satire, but all of them are responsible for people becoming dumber about the world around them. I have put together a handy guide for keeping track of some of the worst offenders.
For starters, there’s the Onion, the granddaddy of online news satire. The thing with the Onion is that (with the occasional amusing high-profile exception) most people understand that it’s satire. It also happens to be (generally) very good satire, which makes a difference. Usually when the Onion is reposted, it’s by someone who gets the joke… although this is not always the case.
Clickhole is a spin-off of the Onion, and is intended to be a parody of clickbait sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy. However, it’s almost too good, and has, in the last year or so, been used by the gullible to spread bad information.
The Daily Currant is one of the most commonly re-posted sites. While they do advertise themselves as a satirical site, it’s also set up just like a tabloid news site, and has a very serious, even humorless style which makes it closer to FoxNews, um, I mean, The Weekly World News, than to the Onion. Satire usually includes jokes, or at least a wink or two to the reader. The Daily Currant generally refuses to do this. It usually posts articles that read as ideological wish-fulfillment, often with a rightward slant. It’s probably why you’ve seen your argumentative uncle posting headlines like, “Obama Pledges $700 Billion Bailout of VA,” which manages to be both mean-spirited and incredibly untrue.
National Report is in the same vein as The Daily Currant, with a tabloid-like setup, and articles with titles like, “Michelle Obama Claims Upcoming Interview With ‘OUT’ Magazine Will “Shock The World,” and Facebook To Be Shutdown For A Full Week To Perform Standard Maintenance. A significant percentage of the online misinformation spread this past summer about Ebola was thanks to several widespread posts from this site.
The News Nerd is geared toward racially charged headlines and sometimes just downright racist commentary. Most of the articles appear to be clickbait for those interested in confirming deep-seated racial biases. Also, it’s full of ads. So many ads, that the content is almost unreadable. Actually, even without the ads, the content is basically unreadable.
Mediamass is primarily a celebrity gossip site, though, of course, completely fake.
NahaDaily, Huzlers, Demyx, and News-Hound (currently calling itself “Mogul”), are fairly run-of-the-mill sites of this ilk, though each are a bit less-readable and more awkwardly-formatted than some of the others.
Christwire.org is fairly self-explanatory – a send-up of conservative Christian commentary, with some of the most outrageous content among the listed sites. The founder admits that he’s trying to fool people into believing what he posts in an attempt to ridicule some of the more extreme beliefs of the fringe right.
There are others, many listed in the links posted at the bottom of this page. Fake news sites like the above tend to be more about generating ad revenue as quickly and cheaply as possible then actually providing entertainment and humor the way the Onion (usually) does.
Other then recognizing what websites are known to post fake news, the only real way to fight the spread of online stupidity is through effort and awareness. I know, that’s no fun. Nobody wants their interneting to be hard. Thing is, it doesn’t have to be. The tools to fact-check are fast and readily-available.
To start off, here are a few pro tips: If it seems ridiculous – even if it comforts and confirms ideological beliefs – it likely is fake. Or, more succinctly put – if it sounds too good to be true, then it is.
If the headline is attention-grabbing to the point of parody, ie: clickbait, it is wise to remain skeptical.
If the article can only be found via political commentary/opinion sites (regardless of ideological slant), but not on mainstream news or even alternative news sites, then there’s a good chance it’s a hoax. Not saying the mainstream media hasn’t run with a bad story, or that there aren’t major flaws with much of the big corporate-owned pages, but fact-checking tends to be much better with the bigger sites.
A Google search can be instructive just from a numerical standpoint. If a search for a story yields only a few obvious hits, then it’s either incredibly new, or, much more likely lacks credibility.
Sources matter. The more sources listed in an article, the better chance it has of being truthful. Even just from a statistical standpoint, the more sources, the better.
Remember Snopes! It’s one of the best and oldest fact-checking websites. If you’re unsure of a topic, check http://www.snopes.com. It’s a huge site with an enormous variety of topics, all debunking – and sometimes confirming – myths, lies, urban legends, and other propoganda.
Beyond Snopes, there are other good options for gleaning the truth.
Wikipedia has its flaws, including the disadvantages of being open to public alteration, but few websites can match the depth of the site. Actually, probably none can. And, it is also very good about providing sources and links, and tends toward very solid fact-checking.
The Fact Checker is also politically-themed, and is run by the Washington Post.
TruthOrFiction.com is more of a Snopes-style page, and specializes in online rumors and myths
HoaxSlayer.com is also in the same vein as Snopes and TruthorFiction.
Finally, Google or even other search engines (there are other search engines?) can provide most of what one needs for discovering the differences between fact and fiction. Calm and thorough searching with a discerning eye is all one generally needs to uncovering the truth.
The main reasons why people tend to fall for internet hoaxes are laziness and the need to have one’s beliefs comfirmed. People like to have their opinions validated by an “authority.” It’s comforting to hear someone knowledgeable say, “You’re absolutely right to feel the way you do.”
The thing is, the truth is often uncomfortable. It muddies the waters rather than providing an easy answer. But nuance and brevity usually don’t mix. This is where laziness and ideological comfort tend to blend. Many people don’t want to put in the work only to find their deepest-held beliefs are wrong, or at least flawed. But that’s really the key to finding truth online. One must be willing to do some research, and one must also be willing to accept that sometimes facts aren’t comforting. It takes effort, honesty and courage. Come to think of it, the effortlessness and anonymity of the internet frequently acts to suppress effort, honesty and courage.
To those who care about advancing knowledge, consider my tips. To those who don’t, be prepared to be debunked.
In order for me to walk the walk, my sources are listed below. There’s some good stuff to read here.