"Fake news" erupted into the national lexicon during last year's presidential campaign and unfortunately the practice may long be with us. The democratization of news, real or fake, through the internet has introduced a Wild West element to the formerly staid business of reporting. The buyer — or reader — must beware.
In essence, fake news is fabricated information packaged to appear as legitimate news. It can emerge destructively in any number of forums — health care, crime, finances — but is most often associated with politics, which is particularly susceptible to the distribution of misinformation or, in another newly coined phrase, "alternative facts."
Facebook is a prominent purveyor of fake news, with some writers profiting by the selling of ads and their well-read pages. In an interview with The Washington Post after the presidential election, a prolific writer of fake news on Facebook offered insights into the process. As an example, the writer said he decided to build off the claims of supporters of Donald Trump that people were paid to protest his campaign by making up a tale about a protester who was paid $3,500 by the Hillary Clinton campaign to protest her opponent. The fake news story raced through social media as fact.
"His [Trump's] followers don't fact-check anything — they'll post everything, believe anything," the Facebook writer told The Post. "His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. I made that up."
At best, the writer was naive — no political campaign of any stripe is likely to fact-check and discard fake news that it can benefit from. At worst, he was irresponsible, but consumers of news bear a responsibility to be skeptical of what they read and separate real news from fake news. Assertions that protesters of Trump policies are paid continue to be made absent of any fact-based evidence.
Fake news stories tend to avoid identifying sources — because they don't have any. News organizations with a long history of researching and reporting stories accurately can be relied upon for real news based on identifiable sources and verifiable facts. Dan Kennedy, an associate professor in Northeastern University's School of Journalism and a nationally recognized media commentator, told Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan (Eagle oped, April 18) that research has shown that "some 85 percent of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers."
News consumers should avoid fake news sites even for entertainment value because their clicks translate into advertisers and profitability. News consumers should also refrain from sharing fake news with others as this contributes to the spread of fake news at light speed through the internet.
The responsibilities of news consumers are shared by elected and appointed officials and those in law enforcement, as fake news loves a vacuum. A website that speculated that Chad Reidy of Clarksburg may have had something to do with the disappearance of his wife Joanne Ringer (Mr. Reidy has since been found dead, Eagle, April 7) may have engaged in its speculation regardless of whatever state or local police said, but a statement clarifying Mr. Reidy's status and emphasizing that an investigation is ongoing might have defused premature on line theorizing. There are limits to what can be said about an ongoing investigation, but when authorities are as forthcoming as possible they discourage speculation from sweeping through social media.
The News Media Alliance, a Virginia-based nonprofit, last month launched a national campaign, called Support Real News, dedicated to combating the spread of fake news. The campaign is designed to support organizations that provide real news and draw attention to the dangers of fake news in misleading the public on important issues, in that way enabling groups with selfish agendas to advance their causes. (More information can be found at newsmediaalliance.org/supportrealnews. On Saturday at 4, the Stockbridge Library Asociation will host a forum, titled "Fake News, Real News: Why the Difference Matters to our Democracy," the second of its two-part "Consider the Source: Truth and News in the Misinformation Age" series.)
Our democracy is sabotaged if voters are distracted from the facts by cleverly packaged fake news. The adage that everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts was never more true than it is today. Fake news purveyors are weakened when readers don't patronize their sites or spread their falsehoods. Democracy is strengthened when people get their information from news organizations that are dedicated to providing real news in the form of fair and fact-based journalism.