Long Island, NY – April 13, 2017 - You may have noticed something a little different about Facebook today when you logged on to check out the latest happenings with your friends or to post a status update about that great breakfast you just ate. Many users of the world’s biggest social media site, whether accessing it on their computers or mobile devices, were greeted by a message informing them of a new initiative that Facebook will be undertaking- the gradual identification and elimination of so-called “fake” or “false” news from its service.
Fake news has become something of a major phenomenon in recent years; using the massive and relatively unchecked reach of the Internet, fake news has reached a level of global proliferation – especially on social media sites, where it is often mistaken for the real thing and shared endlessly – that has caused it to literally shape people’s views and opinions on major topics. Best described as a hoax and/or a deliberate spread of misinformation, fake news often masquerades as a legitimate news article extolling a very specific – and often, very incorrect or just plain made-up – point of view.
With many internet users often neglecting to verify claims made in the variety of media they are exposed to while surfing the web, fake news has become a very real problem, and one Facebook has been criticized for recently for allowing it to spread unchecked throughout their newsfeeds. Apparently, with this morning’s announcement, the social media site is finally accepting responsibility for attempting to monitor the vast amount of information that filters through its system on a daily basis. A daunting task, no doubt – as of April 2017, there are over 1.86 billion active monthly Facebook users worldwide – but nonetheless a task that sorely needs to be undertaken.
Facebook has long been the biggest disseminator of fake news, although inadvertently via the actions of the segment of its user base who share stories that have a dubious-at-best grip on reality. Long criticized by the media for taking a lackadaisical approach to combating the problem, Facebook has recently attempted to step up its game in that regard. This morning, many users were greeted with an invitation at the top of their Facebook feeds, offering to show them how to best identify and report fake news. For those who accepted the invitation, they found themselves whisked away to Facebook’s Help Center, where they were offered ten very helpful tips and suggestions for separating the wheat from the chaff in their daily feeds. Here are these tips, for your edification:
- Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
- Look closely at the URL. A phony or look-alike URL may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the URL. You can go to the site to compare the URL to established sources.
- Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their "About" section to learn more.
- Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
- Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
- Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
- Check the evidence. Check the author's sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
- Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it's more likely to be true.
- Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story's details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
- Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.
All posts in Facebook now include an option to report it to administrators for possible removal from the service for a variety of reasons, including tagging it as a ‘false news story.’ It’s suggested that all users take advantage of this ability in order to root out illegitimate news stories.
Fake news can take many forms, from simple parody – popular comedy website The Onion is a good example – to articles that clearly cross the line into horrifically libelous territory. One of the most extreme examples was the so-called “Pizzagate” story that was making the rounds last year, which claimed – among other things – that former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were running a satanic child sex trafficking ring(!) out of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington D.C.-area pizzeria. While widely dismissed as nonsense by most of the general public, enough people actually took the story seriously enough that it began to spread throughout social media – going viral – and eventually it was picked up by several “fringe” conspiracy theory-mongering news sites and portrayed by them as legitimate news. Pizzagate culminated in a 28-year-old Salisbury, North Carolina man barging into Comet Ping Pong on December 4, 2016, armed with an AR-15 rifle, who later stated to authorities that he was intent on investigating the child trafficking claims he had read about online for himself. While ultimately no one was hurt during the incident, events could have easily played out differently; either way, fake news – and the general public’s inclination to believe most things they read on the internet – are to blame.
Fake news has been used to a variety of reasons in recent years – to shape opinion, influence elections, spread confusion, and much more – and to combat it, it will take people who are willing to delve beneath the endless stories, memes, articles, and funny cat videos flowing through their daily Facebook and Twitter feeds, educate themselves on what to look for, and help the internet become the essential teaching tool it once was and – with a little work – can be again.